A Conservation Checklist for Sage-Grouse

The greater sage-grouse has been of conservation concern for more than 100 years, when both locals and visiting naturalists first observed population declines. Conservationists began advocating for protection for the species 15 years ago and, after a “convoluted journey” through the federal Endangered Species Act listing process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally consider the species for listing in 2015.

This date certain for a listing decision has compelled a multitude of federal and state agencies and local entities to finally develop conservation strategies to protect and recover sage-grouse and their habitat. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily engaged in these planning processes. We are analyzing thousands of pages of documents and working to improve federal and state conservation strategies for the species. To this end, we have developed a science-based checklist to evaluate planning efforts.

A successful sage-grouse conservation plan will include, at a minimum, the following measures to ensure sage-grouse conservation. They are based on sage-grouse and sagebrush ecology, as well as key principles of conservation biology of protecting and managing habitat to conserve species. The checklist also addresses three sage-grouse habitat categories—“priority,” “restoration” and “general” habitat—that federal and state agencies have already defined for sage-grouse planning purposes.

  1. Identify, designate and preserve priority habitat essential to sage-grouse conservation and restoration. The first rule for conserving imperiled species is to prevent continued loss and degradation of habitat essential for the species persistence. This is especially important for sage-grouse, which are highly sensitive to disturbance, particularly in their breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Protecting winter habitat is also critical for sage-grouse conservation.
  2. Create and expand existing protected areas critical to sage-grouse and sagebrush conservation. Some proportion of remaining sage-grouse range is so important for conservation that it should be protected and specially managed as permanent reserves for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. These can include new and expanded national wildlife refuges; Congressional designations, such as wilderness and national conservation areas; and administrative allocations, like areas of critical environmental concern. A reserve system should protect large expanses of sagebrush steppe, important seasonal habitats and connectivity, and the system should be large enough to achieve the goals of biological representation, and ecological redundancy and resiliency.
  3. Designate restoration habitat to focus habitat restoration efforts. Restoration habitat is degraded or fragmented habitat that may not be currently occupied by sage-grouse, but might support the species if restored. Land managers should target passive and active habitat restoration efforts in these areas to extend current sage-grouse range and mitigate for future loss of priority habitat.
  4. Reduce and mitigate threats in sage-grouse general habitat, outside of priority habitat, protected areas, and restoration habitat. The goal for managing general habitat is to support habitat connectivity and increase sage-grouse populations within and outside of the other sage-grouse habitat designations.
  5. Develop adaptive management plans with sciencedriven triggers that indicate when management is not leading to desired outcomes. Plans should institute adequate, consistent, objective-driven monitoring keyed to appropriate indicators that provide the information needed for adaptive management—and then require changes when current management fails to meet conservation objectives.

These simple, sensible precepts, if adopted and implemented across sage-grouse range, would provide a basis for sage-grouse restoration in theWest. We encourage Defenders’ members and supporters to participate in the current planning process for greater sage-grouse. Navigating these bulky, intimidating, but vitally important conservation plans will be far more manageable with our conservation checklist in hand.

Sage Grouse Crossing

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Mark Salvo is Director of Federal Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

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