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Looking at a Sage-Grouse deadline

Chris Merkord

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From the Birding Community E-bulletin, August 2014:




It's going to be a very interesting year in sage-grouse land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a court-ordered September 2015 deadline to decide whether or not to list the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The effort to conserve Greater Sage-Grouse and sagebrush habitat is a complex process involving 11 states, six federal agencies, a large number of ranchers, various energy interests, and many non-governmental organizations.


Here is some important background: In 1999, the Service received eight petitions to list Greater Sage-Grouse under the ESA. In 2005, the Service found listing was "not warranted." In 2007, the not-warranted decision was remanded in federal court. In 2010, ESA listing was then determined to be "warranted, but precluded." This officially meant that other species had greater priority. For practical purposes, the species was in a state of limbo, a "candidate species," and efforts to further address the issue and conserve sage-grouse nearly ceased. Then in 2011, the U.S. District Court ordered the service to reach an ESA decision by September 2015. The court-ordered deadline has forced things along considerably.


This prolonged issue has sparked debate, controversy, fear, confusion, and anger among many Westerners. In addition, some legislators are also politicizing this issue with a flurry of accusations and attempts directed at delaying the ESA decision.


Currently, under court pressure, both the involved states and the Bureau of Land Management have to produce sage-grouse conservation plans that can credibly address species population recovery. One such resource management plan, the first of its kind, was released in late June. It involves 2.4 million acres of land out of Lander, Wyoming. The BLM Lander plan is particularly important because about 80 percent of the planning area is "core habitat" that harbors large numbers of sage-grouse. The plan is intended to conserve sage-grouse habitat while at the same time enabling economic activities like energy development.


The Lander resource management plan "appears to be a step in the right direction" said Ed Arnett, director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "However, the plan is not perfect, and it does seem to have missed an opportunity to employ stronger measures for long-term protection of core habitat." According to Arnett, the plan "still employs some practices not supported by science, for example, the use of quarter mile buffers around [courting] leks outside of core habitat."


The plan calls for the BLM to prioritize energy-type development away from core habitat, however it does not take that habitat off the table for future development. "Protecting more core habitat would have been preferred, so we expect the BLM to indeed prioritize development away from core sage-grouse habitat as it implements the Lander plan," said Terry Riley, director of conservation for the North American Grouse Partnership.


Some states are responding accordingly to the situation. Last month, for example, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a plan to close all or parts of 32 counties to sage-grouse hunting this year and to shorten remaining hunting seasons from two months to one. The unanimous vote was in response to spring breeding lek counts that were the lowest since 1980. The state's current management plan calls for closures if the number of male sage- grouse drops below 45 percent from the long-term average count for three years.


The question arises, of course, are these moves too little or too late? 


Indeed, it will be an interesting year.


In the meantime, to help journalists, stakeholders, and the interested public stay informed about the situation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has built a new Greater Sage-Grouse website and assigned three public affairs officers to lead the agency's communication efforts. This new website is one way the Service hopes to better communicate the breadth of the ongoing conservation actions:


Another way to follow developments is through the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI), an effort we have mentioned before, that emphasizes making ranching activities more compatible with the birds:


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