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Western Sage Grouse 101

Jan. 6, 2012 | Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Aaron Kunz

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  • The sage grouse live on the ground and near sage brush. credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The sage grouse live on the ground and near sage brush. | credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | rollover image for more

The sage grouse is a bird on the path to extinction but without the federal protection of other threatened or endangered species.

With conservation groups pushing for endangered species status — and restrictions on grazing and development that could result — the future of this peculiar bird could have a big impact on the people, businesses, and ecosystems of the Intermountain West.

Here’s a primer on the sage grouse and the issues it raises:

The Bird:

The American sage grouse is found in an 11-state region of the western United States. A declining population has the attention of the federal U.S.

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Fish and Wildlife Service and several conservation groups. Both agree that the bird is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protections but disagree on a timeline.

Adult sage grouse are described by the Fish and Wildlife Service as having long, pointed tails with feathers on the legs to the toes. The adult male has a distinctive yellow patch over the eye and is greyish on the top with a white breast. The males also have two round sacs on the lower neck that inflate and make a sound during the mating season.

Adult females are mottled grey-brown with a light brown throat and dark belly.

The sage grouse live in typically dry locations and nest on the ground under sage brush. They feed on sage brush and insects on the ground. They are very dependent on their habitat because they live there year round. Humans are slowly impacting the habitat through industrial and energy development by breaking up habitat into small chunks. That’s the focus an ongoing legal challenge between conservationists and the federal government.

The Lawsuit:

The conservation group Western Watershed has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force the listing of the western sage grouse. The conservation group points to a determination by the federal agency that sage grouse needs protection by the Endangered Species Act.

Western Watershed Director Jon Marvel claims 90 percent of the sage grouse population have been wiped out in the West. He predicts that the bird species could be extinct within the next 50 to 75 years if something isn’t done to protect them now.

Arguments ended in U.S. District Court of Idaho on December 21, 2011 and now the case rests with Judge B. Lynn Winmill.

Government’s View:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a priority list that ranks candidate species from 1 to 12. The lower the number, the higher the risk. Higher numbers indicate that a species’ survival is threatened

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but not in serious danger of extinction. Sage grouse are currently ranked at number 8 on the priority scale.

Diane Katzenberger with the USFWS says limited resources forced them to prioritize the list. Sage Grouse numbers are still relatively large in the west. By putting sage grouse on the candidate list, it gives the western states time to take preventative measures. States have the opportunity to keep the species from being listed and losing control under the restrictive federal management.

Katzenberger says the sage grouse didn’t meet the requirements necessary to be ESA listed in 2006. They were re-evaluated in 2008 and found to meet the necessary requirements to be a candidate for ESA listing. They were again ranked as a candidate in 2010. Species are re-evaluated by the agency on an annual basis.

Other Players:

In recent years, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Center for Biological Diversity have regularly challenged the ESA listing process by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To end the revolving door lawsuits, the federal agency signed settlement agreements with both conservation groups to speed up the listing process.

The agreements were signed in 2011 and give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five years to review more than 700 candidate species and determine if ESA listing is necessary. The sage grouse are included in that list for 2015.

As part of the process, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must come up with Resource Management Plans. As part of that process, the BLM is currently accepting public comment through January seeking for ideas on how to refine the project. The federal agency will also hold 26 scoping meetings through February 7, 2012. A scoping meeting is when the project team consults with the public and other agencies to help refine the scope of the project and identify issues of concern to be addressed in the Environmental Impact Statement.

Western Watershed says sage grouse can’t afford to wait until 2015. The USFWS says there are species that need more immediate attention.

Court Settlement Timeline

  • Process Began Sept. 2010
  • USFWS signs deal with Wildlife Guardians in May 2011
  • USFWS signs deal with Center for Biological Diversity in July 2011

Human Activity:

Sage grouse are losing habitat due to expansion of agricultural and industrial development. That has broken up sage grouse habitat in numerous states including Idaho, Oregon and Washington. With less-habitat, the sage grouse are losing food and livable space.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examined the effects of energy development on sage grouse and their habitat. The federal agency concluded that oil, gas, and coal-bed methane negatively affect sage grouse habitat. Even when mitigative measures are implemented. It could result in direct habitat loss due to roads, pipelines, power lines and direct human disturbance.

Jon Marvel with Western Watershed says developers of energy and infrastructure should question whether a project is absolutely necessary. He believes there is too much infrastructure development.

© 2012 Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television
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