Where the sage grouse roam: The future of conservation and development on the Western landscape
Though the imminent threat of an endangered species listing is off the table, this September, a decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will mark the culmination of years — even decades — of conservation work that is changing the face of the West.
At the root of it all is a puffy, quixotic bird known as the greater sage grouse, an ancient ground bird that takes up residence exclusively in the sagebrush.
The bird has caused much consternation throughout Washington, D.C. and 11 western home states, including Colorado. Ranchers and energy and mining industry representatives have come to the table with scientists and local, state and federal government officials to figure out how to protect the bird and its disappearing habitat.
The motivation behind the unprecedented collaboration across agencies, states and cultural boundaries (aside from pure conservation interests) is to keep the bird from landing on the endangered species list. A listing would put control of the bird’s fate — and the 165 million acres of land it calls home — into the hands of the federal government, something most Westerners would loathe to see happen.
The wheels of the West-wide conservation effort began turning in earnest about five years ago, though the sage grouse has been the focus of organized conservation work since at least the mid ‘90s.
In 2010, Fish and Wildlife arrived at a “warranted but precluded” decision for the greater sage grouse, meaning it warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but was precluded from listing due to higher priority species.
The two main reasons Fish and Wildlife identified for why the bird needed help were habitat threats and a lack of regulatory mechanisms to ensure its survival into the future.
A 2010 lawsuit by environmental groups WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project led to a settlement agreement that required Fish and Wildlife to make a listing determination on the greater sage grouse by Sept. 30 of this year.
Though the agency will still issue a “warranted” or “not warranted” decision as scheduled, it cannot proceed with listing the bird, even if warranted, due to a congressional move that blocks funding for Fish and Wildlife to list the species.
Nonetheless, the deadline has catapulted the bird to the top of the priority list for countless local and state government agencies, industry and private landowners, all of whom will await Fish and Wildlife’s decision to see if enough progress has been made to remove the bird from the running for endangered species listing.
Indicators of an ecosystem in decline
The sagebrush ecosystem is the most widespread vegetation in Western North America, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Though the sagebrush steppe may look like a vast, empty sea, it is actually more like an old-growth forest, home to 350 species of wildlife, including elk, pronghorn, deer, rabbits, rattlesnakes, migratory songbirds and golden eagles.
Since settlement of the West took place in the 19th century, sagebrush lands have also become home to cattle, sheep and other livestock, crop agriculture, oil and gas development, wind energy development, mining, pipelines, transmission lines and other forms of human development.
One of the threats Fish and Wildlife identified to sage grouse populations is habitat loss, in large part due to human use and alteration. The agency estimates the bird occupies only 56 percent of its historic range, or nearly 260,000 square miles.
Some conservationists consider the greater sage grouse to be an indicator species for the health of the entire ecosystem and the other wildlife that depend on it.
“There are a multitude of species out there that are harder to gauge and that we will see listing filings for if we don’t deal with this issue and deal with this issue now,” said Brian Rutledge, vice president and policy adviser with the National Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain region. “By resolving the sage grouse situation, we’d resolve the sagebrush ecosystem and that’s by doing it not as one-species management, but by looking at a holistic approach and getting it right now.”
Reversing the downward trend
Further indication of the struggling health of the sagebrush ecosystem is the steady decline of greater sage grouse numbers range-wide over the past several decades. This year, however, Colorado wildlife biologists and stakeholders are celebrating a boom year for sage grouse and hoping it indicates a reversal of the bird’s downward population trends.
Colorado’s greater sage grouse numbers have nearly doubled in the past two years, according to 2015 count data being finalized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife this week.
Though Colorado is only 4 percent of the greater sage grouse’s total range, population numbers seem to be generally on the rise in other states as well.
The data revealed a startling 62-percent increase in the Northwest Colorado sage grouse population in 2015 compared to 2014, on the heels of a 30-percent increase in 2014 over 2013 population numbers.
Northwest Colorado is home to more than 70 percent of Colorado’s sage grouse population by 2015 count numbers, with other significant populations in Northpark, Middlepark and the Parachute-Piceance-Roan Plateau region. Small populations also reside in North Eagle and South Routt counties and the White River region near Meeker.
“We’re really in the fast growth part of that population fluctuation,” said Brad Petch, senior wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Things are looking to be improving and improving fairly rapidly, but these will fluctuate over time, and in the future, too, they will likely decline. But this is the first time since I’ve been working on sage grouse since the 1990s that this peak is well above the (last) peak in 2006.”
The bird’s natural population fluctuations can make it difficult to discern overall population trends, though Petch is hopeful the 2015 numbers represent a step in the right direction.
Nonetheless, the last few years of growth follow a period of sharp decline in grouse populations and several decades of gradual decline across the bird’s 11-state range.
Though population is not a criterion in Fish and Wildlife’s assessment of a species for listing — contrary to what one might expect — the numbers tell a story which bears heavily on conservation efforts in recent years.
Fish and Wildlife estimates total greater sage grouse populations to be between 200,000 and 500,000, with a decline of 30 percent in numbers range-wide since 1985, a decrease that looks modest next to data released in an April report from the Pew Charitable Trust.
A study commissioned by Pew found a decrease of 56 percent in the bird’s numbers between 2007 and 2013 and cited a 2004 report that put sage grouse decline at an overall rate of 2 percent per year from 1965 to 2003.
“Our research should and must ring alarm bells,” said Edward (Oz) Garton, Ph.D, in a news release. Garton, professor emeritus in wildlife ecology and statistics at the University of Idaho, conducted the study. “These numbers indicate to us that if significant protections aren’t established, this important bird and the entire sagebrush steppe region face irreparable harm.”
The Pew numbers don’t tell the entire story, however, said Pat Deibert, national sage grouse coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Really, we’re looking at a much longer-term trend than what the Pew study did, so we were looking across 40 or 50 years, and they’re looking across the last seven, and that was a period of decline for sage grouse as part of the natural cycle,” Deibert said, noting that Fish and Wildlife relied on prior Pew research for its own estimates. “The last two years, the numbers are way up.”
The shifting population trends make it difficult to pinpoint the bird’s responses — positive or negative — to human influences on its environment. In this case, scientists — and Fish and Wildlife — are trying to tease out whether the increase in sage grouse populations are a direct result of conservation efforts over the past five years, or simply the natural cycle or a result of other natural factors, such as weather.
A counting conundrum
Even with all the attention given to counting the birds, the greater sage grouse is not an easy bird to track. Despite the vast amount of resources and scientific study directed toward the feathered critters, there is still no single counting methodology scientists and wildlife agencies can be confident is producing accurate population numbers.
The next best thing they can utilize to assess the health of the bird are estimates, sometimes very rough ones.
To wit: Fish and Wildlife’s current population estimate ranges from 200,000 to 500,000, a range of 250 percent.
So how can anyone be sure of not only historic numbers — which weren’t monitored until the 1950s and not monitored comprehensively until the 1980s — but also current numbers?
“It gets really messy trying to come up with exact numbers,” Deibert said. “If they didn’t cycle, and we could count every bird every year, absolutely that number every year would tell us something. But they do cycle, and we can’t count every male and every lek.”
All sage grouse population estimates are based on the number of male birds on the lek, or mating ground, in the spring, when the males are at their most visible. The birds are otherwise elusive and scattered throughout the sagebrush the rest of the year.
The bird’s fame is due, in part, to the elaborate strutting, popping and feathery displays the males put on to attract females. A single lek can draw anywhere from one to hundreds of male sage grouse, each dancing and competing for the attention of hens.
To the contrary, the hens keep a low profile, making it impossible to effectively count them. Thus, scientists have to guess at the overall ratio of males to females in the sage grouse population and draw their estimates from there.
Further complicating matters, males often visit more than one lek, and some don’t even show up, meaning wildlife biologists have to guess at those factors, as well.
Despite the uncertainty around the numbers, there is enough evidence to suggest the sage grouse population has taken a definitive nosedive over the past two centuries.
“Early reports suggested the birds were abundant, with estimates of historical populations ranging from 1,600,000 to 16,000,000 birds. However, concerns about extinction were raised in early literature due to market hunting and habitat alteration,” according to Fish and Wildlife’s Beginner’s Guide to Greater Sage Grouse.
This may not be the first time the alarm bell has sounded that the mercurial bird was in danger, but it has certainly precipitated one of the largest conservation efforts ever seen to protect not just the sage grouse, but its habitat and the other species that depend on it.
Striking the right balance
As public land managers and private landowners tackle the problem of how to best protect the bird and its habitat, they enter into a balancing act between conservation and continued development.
The challenge is “to figure out how you continue development but maintain the species, because economies depend on this (land),” according to Rutledge. “There is no one economy of the West. It’s not gas and oil, it’s not just agriculture, it’s not just recreation, it’s hunting, it’s fishing, it’s all of the above.”
Some human land uses — such as livestock grazing — are more compatible with sage grouse conservation objectives than others — such as oil and gas development. Both uses are important to Northwest Coloradans, where grazing and oil and gas development overlap significantly with sage grouse habitat.
Somewhat less easy to control are threats to habitat from wildfire and invasive species such as cheatgrass, which can prevent healthy sagebrush ecosystems from growing back after fire or other disturbance.
In Colorado, the primary threats to habitat include oil and gas development, infrastructure, fragmentation of habitat, wildfire and invasive weeds, according to Bureau of Land Management Colorado, which manages more than 40 percent of the state’s sage grouse habitat.
While it may seem counterintuitive that hunting of sage grouse is still allowed in Colorado and the majority of states that are home to the bird, hunting is neither considered a primary threat to current populations nor a cause of their decline.
Moreover, it is tightly regulated. Hunting of sage grouse is only allowed in about half of the bird’s range in Colorado, where populations are large and robust. The hunting season in Northwest Colorado and Middlepark is seven days in October, with a bag limit of two birds per day and a possession limit (at any one time) of four birds.
“Sportsmen have put most of the money into wildlife conservation,” Petch said. “Having folks out there with a stake in the game is tremendously important in terms of bringing attention, conservation dollars and a desire to maintain the species… We wouldn’t preemptively want to exclude people from that activity and lose support for grouse conservation… Those folks can be tremendous allies in the long term conservation of the species.”
What’s the end game?
Ultimately, Fish and Wildlife must proceed with its evaluation of the bird’s status using the best available science, though it is bound by Congress’s decision not to fund a threatened or endangered listing.
Opponents of the listing process, which make up the vast majority of players on the sage grouse scene, contend that local and state agencies, in partnership with private landowners, can do conservation better.
“There are pros and cons to both,” Deibert said. “There’s no doubt that listing has motivated many efforts. Listing could impact the way of life in the West, but I also think it’s people realizing this is a system that’s valuable and we’re at risk of losing it.”
But Fish and Wildlife is not the only federal player with a say in how the bird’s habitat is managed. While Congress has temporarily hamstrung Fish and Wildlife’s ability to determine how the bird should be managed, its sibling agency under the Department of Interior, the BLM, recently rolled out Land Use Plan Amendments focused on sage grouse conservation that would alter nearly 100 land use plans, affecting 66 million acres, throughout the West.
The regulations proposed in the plans, which could go into effect as early as August, could have a significant impact on the future balance of conservation and development across the bird’s range, including in Northwest Colorado.
Some background: Congress blocks sage grouse listing
In December, Congress passed a federal spending bill containing a provision that prohibits the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing any listing rules related to the greater sage grouse.
In other words, Fish and Wildlife cannot list the bird as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act come Sept. 30.
“Congress has kind of constrained our decision space, so we can deliver one of two findings,” said Fish and Wildlife Public Affairs Specialist Theo Stein. “One of them is status quo — still a candidate — and the other is that enough work has been done in the last five years that it no longer needs the protection of the act.”
Fish and Wildlife is following through on its mandate from a 2011 settlement to determine whether the bird is warranted or not warranted for listing. However, regardless of its findings, nothing will change come September in the management of the bird or its habitat.
“Regardless of what the decision is on Sept. 30, this bird will still be a state-managed bird and will not have the protections that come with a threatened or endangered listing,” Stein said.
The provision is one of several moves made by legislators in what has become something of a chess match between Congress, federal agencies, state governments and local agencies intertwined in the bird’s fate.
Though the bill technically expires on Sept. 30 — the same as Fish and Wildlife’s decision deadline — the reality is that such provisions are often carried forward into the new appropriations bill, Stein explained.
Other legislative actions in progress attempting to block listing of the bird include:
■ The Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act, introduced to the Senate by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and to the House by U.S. Rep. Stewart, R-Utah, which would prohibit Fish and Wildlife from making a listing determination of the greater sage grouse for at least six years and requires the Bureau of Land Management to halt its planning process and wait to adopt the state plans instead, according to Jessica Kershaw, senior adviser and press secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior;
■ Rider no. 1709 to the House National Defense Authorization Act would delay a listing for 10 years and require the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to implement state conservation plans instead of proposed agency plans for at least 10 years, as well as give states the power to veto plan provisions they think are inconsistent with the state plans, Kershaw confirmed in an email. The Senate NDAA bill passed clean of any such provisions.
■ The FY2016 Interior Appropriations Act in both the House and Senate maintain the current provision that precludes Fish and Wildlife from spending money on issuing a listing rule for greater sage grouse, effective through Sept. 30, 2016. The bill is expected to be voted on this week.
Though the threat of a possible listing was what galvanized the unprecedented landscape-scale conservation effort that we see unfolding now, it is a moot point for the immediate future.
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