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Sage-grouse Status Update: Warrented for listing, but precluded for higher priorities

March 5, 2010
[Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal;Now Public; The New York Times]

A male sage grouse fighting for the attention of a female sage grouse on a mating ground southwest of Rawlins, Wyoming (photo by Jerret Raffety for the Rawlins Daily Times).

The determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today that listing the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is warranted, but precluded for now, confirms that some of America’s most treasured landscapes and game species are in trouble.  It is a wake-up call for landowners, industry, and conservationists to work together to reverse the decline of the bird and the land it inhabits.  Greater sage-grouse currently occur in only 11 western states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming

“An endangered species listing is no one’s first choice as a tool to fix broken landscapes,” said Ted Toombs, Rocky Mountain Regional Director of the Center for Conservation Incentives at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and a member of several state technical committees for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “It is really a last resort option to keep species from going extinct.”

“The first, best option to protect species is for conservationists, farmers, ranchers, energy companies, the recreation industry, and other stakeholders to work together on habitat conservation and restoration, so that an endangered species listing can be avoided,” Toombs added.  “Many western industries–including tourism, hunting and livestock–depend on the same thing as this iconic bird: healthy, productive, open lands.”
What Does It Mean?

According to FWS, while the bird’s decline warrants listing, it must be delayed due to the backlog of other species that are already candidates for ESA listing.  The decision means that the status of the greater sage-grouse will be evaluated every 12 months along with the status of the 279 other ESA candidate species.  Making the greater sage-grouse a candidate species allows agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to treat the bird as if it were an endangered species, and requires state and federal land management agencies to consult with FWS whenever a proposed development would encroach upon greater sage-grouse habitat.  If the status of the greater sage grouse is more perilous next year or in subsequent years, FWS will be more likely formally list the bird under the ESA.  When a species is formally proposed for listing, the endangered species designation process lasts about a year.  While a species remains a candidate for listing, it still is possible to keep it off of the endangered species list if it shows recovery progress.
Energy Groups, Ranchers Respond
The economic impact of an endangered listing would fall most heavily on ranchers and energy producers, who feel doubly threatened by another administration proposal to designate millions of acres of federal land in nine states as national monuments, which would put them off-limits for drilling, mining, grazing, lumbering and any other commercial activity.
“We proactively take steps to protect wildlife, both in terms of the Best Management Practices we employ and by engaging third party experts to better understand, address, and minimize impacts to wildlife,” said Byron Gale, vice president of environment, health and safety for EnCana Oil and Gas (USA), which uses the latest available research on greater sage-grouse to mitigate the impacts of drilling and has committed $21.5 million to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust to protect wildlife habitat and other natural resources.  “We pride ourselves on the numerous steps we have taken to protect the greater sage-grouse and other species of wildlife that share the land and our development sites.  We are committed to doing our part to recover the greater sage-grouse and continuing our proud tradition of responsible resource development.”

“We are committed to implementing science-based conservation measures that reduce or eliminate threats to sage-grouse and at the same time allow for responsible renewable energy development in western states,” said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which supports research aimed at defining the best possible strategies for conserving wildlife species. “AWEA and the wind industry have shown their commitment to wildlife conservation by working with such collaborative efforts as the American Wind Wildlife Institute, the Bats & Wind Energy Cooperative and the recently created Sage Grouse Research Collaborative.”

“I know from experience that cooperative conservation projects at large scales can help livestock producers protect and recover critical habitats for species at risk,” said Leo Barthelmess, a rancher in Malta, Montana and founding member of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, which works collaboratively with agencies, private landowners, non-governmental organizations and many other partners to conserve sage grouse habitat and the livestock community across a multi-million acre landscape in eastern Montana.  “This is one just example of the livestock industry stepping up to help avert listing.”
This Time, A Decision Based on Science
The FWS determination is based upon the latest scientific information from the U.S. Geological Society (USGS) published in Studies in Avian Biology that details sage-grouse population declines, habitat loss and fragmentation of sagebrush ecosystems resulting from the cumulative effects of a variety of causes (see USGS fact sheet on greater sage-grouse at: www.edf.org/documents/10845_SAGRBriefingPaper1.pdf).

A team of 38 scientists was consulted. They observed that sage grouse have declined by 90 percent of their historic numbers and about half their habitat has been lost through wildfires, invasive species and human factors. They concluded, however, that the immediate threat of extinction is relatively low compared to other species.

There are hundreds of candidate species that are reviewed each year by the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether or not their status is improving or getting worse. Based on that review their position on the priority list could change.

The sage grouse is considered an eight on a priority scale of 12 where one is the highest priority.

This decision in essence reverses a 2004 determination by the Bush administration that the sage grouse did not need protection, a decision that a federal court later ruled was tainted by political tampering with the Interior Department’s scientific conclusions. In 2004, the Bush administration Interior Department decided against listing the sage grouse as endangered or threatened, despite reports from agency scientists that the bird and its habitat were in jeopardy. Three years later, a federal judge ruled that a senior Interior Department political appointee, Julie MacDonald, had intimidated agency scientists and overruled their findings. She later resigned from the department over several similar incidents.

Some Still Grousing Over Findings

Congressional Western Caucus members are squawking about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s proposal to further restrict public use of federal lands by listing the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered species.

“The only good place for a sage grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, whose 3rd District would be adversely affected by the listing.

In a March 4 letter to Salazar, 36 caucus members said that listing the grouse as endangered would not only have a “severe impact on all of our states,” it could also “potentially destroy opportunities for the renewable energy development the [Obama] administration has ardently supported” – all for a bird that’s already being successfully protected by wildlife officials at the state level.

But the Obama administration is under great political pressure to list the sage grouse as endangered. Even before the president was inaugurated, environmentalists were calling the bird “a poster child for the threats to wildlife posed by oil and gas drilling, “ and the endangered designation “a litmus test for the Obama administration.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2010 5:42 am

    Thanks for the top notch coverage of this important news event. The preclusion is an opportunity for on-the-ground stakeholders to get moving to collaboration & consensus. Sharp-tongued jack-asses like the quoted UT Republican statesman have already disinvited themselves from the collective solution finding.

    Jeremy Roberts
    Conservation Media

Trackbacks

  1. NRCS Special Initiative Could Help Greater Sage-Grouse Avoid ESA Listing « The Salt Lick

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