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Reporting tip sheet: Covering the greater sage grouse

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BY LAURA LUNDQUIST

In April, I was one of 22 journalists who toured five Western states and covered 1,900 miles to see firsthand the complex challenges of conserving the greater sage grouse. Talking to advocates, landowners, industry representatives and state administrators, we learned what various groups are doing to preserve sagebrush habitat and avoid an Endangered Species Act listing for the bird.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe will decide the bird’s fate in September, if Congress doesn’t continue to pass legislation that undercuts the ESA.
As the Sept. 30 deadline approaches, the potential listing, related reports and political maneuvering will gain more attention. For those reporting on what’s been dubbed by many involved as “the largest conservation effort in history,” the following details may be helpful when writing your stories.
BIOLOGY

  • An ancient species, the greater sage grouse is dependent on sagebrush and isn’t very adaptable. Males often return to the same breeding grounds, or leks, even if the surrounding sagebrush has been destroyed. However, the females won’t return if no habitat remains to protect their chicks, so subpopulations can wink out within a few years.
  • It’s estimated that 16 million sage grouse once existed across their historic range. Now, around 200,000 remain.
  •  An April 2015 Pew Charitable Trust report showed sage grouse populations across the West declined 57 percent between 2007 and 2013.

HABITAT

  •  Scientists estimate that the 275,000 square miles of remaining sagebrush represent just 44 percent of the bird’s historic habitat. Most of the rest has been lost in just the past 40 years. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services put special emphasis on saving “core areas” where sage grouse are found and habitat is still good.
  • Protecting the habitat helps 350 other species, including mule deer, antelope and elk. “What protects the bird protects the herd.”
  • Threats to sagebrush habitat include: Oil and gas development, open-pit mining, wind farms, urban development, certain agricultural practices (sodbusting and cattle ranching), wildfire and climate change. Related threats to the bird are: Roads, fences, crows/ravens, cheatgrass, continuous industrial noise and habitat fragmentation.
  •  Eleven Western states harbor sagebrush habitat but different threats dominate each state. Wyoming retains the most habitat —37 percent of the state — where the main threat is oil and gas, although cattle ranching plays a part. Montana is next with 18 percent sagebrush habitat and sodbusting is the main cause of destruction. Nevada and Idaho have high-desert areas covered by sagebrush, but devastating wildfires fueled by invasive cheatgrass have left only 14 percent coverage in each state.
    Sagebrush accounts for less than 7 percent of the remaining states — Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado and the Dakotas.
  • Sagebrush is difficult to reintroduce and takes decades to grow into effective cover for sage grouse, so it’s been called “a short old-growth forest.”

OVERSIGHT
Private vs. public land

  • Two-thirds of the surviving sagebrush grows on public land, managed mostly by the Bureau of Land Management. Unfortunately, the BLM’s multiple-use mandate allows more industrial and recreational development than on U.S. Forest Service land.
  • That could change at the end of August with the finalization of 15 regional sage grouse conservation plans. They amend 98 BLM land-management plans to require assessment of sagebrush habitat prior to granting land-use permits. But the plans are likely to face challenges from developers.
  • Sagebrush preservation is complicated by the fact that around a third of the remaining habitat is on private property, especially in Montana and Colorado. So over the past decade, the states have developed their own plans to preserve the bird, and some go further than others.
  • If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides even one state plan is insufficient, the sage grouse will be listed in all states. During the grey wolf reintroduction, a court ruling confirmed that the agency couldn’t list a species by state.
  • That’s where the Sage Grouse Initiative comes in. The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service created the imitative in 2010 to promote sustainable ranching that doesn’t degrade sagebrush habitat. Sportsmen’s groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation anteed up to pay the salaries of on-the-ground representatives to work with landowners. Tools include voluntary conservation easements, rotational grazing and fence marking.
  • Citizen working-groups exist in many states, and more than 1,100 ranches have enrolled in the initiative, but many haven’t. Some conservationists question whether the gradual, small changes go far enough.
  • While states have been allocating funds and designing projects to protect the bird, representatives of some governors have threatened that such resources would be withdrawn if the bird were listed.

LISTING HISTORY

  • 2002 – First petition to list the sage grouse as endangered throughout the West.
  • 2005 – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing wasn’t warranted but the decision was challenged a year later by Western Watersheds Project.
  • 2007 – An Idaho federal district court ruled in support of Western Watersheds Project.
  • 2010 – The service decided a “threatened” listing was warranted but other species had higher priority for protection. This time, WildEarth Guardians challenged the agency demanding a ruling.
  • 2011 – A federal district court sided with WildEarth Guardians and set a Sept. 30, 2015, deadline for a sage grouse listing decision.
  • April 2015 – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided against listing a sage grouse subpopulation in Nevada and California, deferring to the collaborative work being done at the local level.

CONGRESSIONAL ACTIONS

  • As part of last November’s “Cromnibus,” Congress approved a rider that prohibits the use of Department of Interior money to “draft, write or issue any rules related to the Greater sage-grouse.” So if Ashe and the service decides to list the bird, the service can’t publish guidance for the decision. If that happens, environmental groups have said they’ll go to court.
  • Most recently, congressmen inserted language into the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would delay a sage grouse listing for 10 years and transfer management of the sagebrush habitat to the states. “Litigation is part of the game plan. We’re going to be litigated, doesn’t matter who wins out,” said San Stiver of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Sage Grouse Team. “We’re not talking just about sage grouse — we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about economics. It’s a huge issue.”

— Some reporting for this story was made possible with an Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources fellowship.  
– After five years writing environmental stories for newspapers, Laura Lundquist has jumped into freelancing and hopes to join the incredible cadre of writers covering the environmental and outdoors stories of Montana and the Northwest.
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