Tag Archive | "sage grouse"

Scientists Warn Federal Government of Failed Sage-grouse Conservation Plans

Even as Congress threatens to meddle again in sage-grouse conservation, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are moving forward on their unprecedented planning process to protect and recover the species on more than 60 million acres of public land. Credit to the agencies—it’s difficult to do one’s job with legislators scrutinizing your every step. But there are also some problems with the planning process that are entirely the agencies’ doing. Last week independent sage-grouse scientists highlighted those problems in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that may be pivotal to the future of the species. The scientists’ letter, endorsed by 11 experts on sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats, notes that draft conservation plans produced as part of the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy do not correspond with the best available science, and so may fail to conserve the species and its habitat. As the scientists clearly, concisely stated, there are just some basic measures that management plans must adopt if they are to successfully protect and recover sage-grouse:

  • Protect sage-grouse breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitats from oil and gas drilling and other development. It is well known that oil, gas and grouse don’t mix.
  • Ensure that livestock grazing is managed to allow for tall grasses and other vegetation to provide cover for sage-grouse hens and chicks from predators. Sage-grouse evolved with golden eagles, ravens and coyotes, but they need healthy habitat with lots of places to hide.
  • Do not purposefully burn, plow, spray or otherwise eliminate sagebrush habitat. There’s less and less of the Sagebrush Sea left every year for sage-grouse and hundreds of other wildlife. We’ve got to protect what’s left of the landscape.

The scientists’ letter affirms Defenders of Wildlife’s own assessment of the planning process last spring, finding that key management prescriptions in the draft plans fell short of what science recommends for conserving sage-grouse. The agencies’ failure to adopt these measures is perplexing to say the least, since the BLM itself has identified them as being important for the species’ persistence.

Fortunately, there is still time for federal planners to improve conservation plans for the grouse, and we understand that the agencies are working to strengthen certain measures in the final plans. But the finals can’t merely be better than the drafts—they’ve got to include all of the science-based standards included in the scientists’ letter if they are to achieve their purpose of conserving sage-grouse and their habitat. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are expected to release final plans this spring, when they will be subject to another round of public input. Armed with the scientists’ letter, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners will once again weigh in with recommendations to improve conservation measures for this iconic bird and the quintessential western habitat that it represents.

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BLM Backsliding on Best Available Science

sage-grouse_1_Tatiana_GettlemanGreater sage-grouse are in trouble and may be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act by September next year. This pending deadline has prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to initiate an unprecedented effort to update dozens of resource management plans with new conservation measures for the grouse and potentially preclude the need to list the species. But now this promising planning process could fall short of its goal, simply because the BLM has declined to follow the best available science on sage-grouse and its habitat.

The BLM (with the Forest Service as cooperating agency) initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in 2011. The first step was to convene a National Technical Team (NTT) comprised of 23 federal and state agency biologists and land managers (including 14 BLM officials) to review the extensive scientific record on sage-grouse and develop a report recommending conservation measures for the species. The team issued “A Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” six months later. BLM guidance instructed planners to analyze NTT report recommendations in at least one management alternative in draft conservation plans for sage-grouse.

The National Technical Team was unequivocal that the conservation measures in its report were derived from “interpretation of the best available scientific studies” using their “best professional judgment.” Moreover, more than 100 scientists described the NTT report to former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as a “comprehensive compilation of the scientific knowledge needed for conserving Sage-Grouse” that “offers the best scientifically supportable approach to reduce the need to list Sage-Grouse as a Threatened or Endangered species.”

Unfortunately, the BLM has progressively distanced itself from the NTT report since it was published. While BLM planners did as instructed, analyzing NTT report recommendations in each of the 15 draft plans developed under the planning strategy, they declined to adopt the NTT report as the preferred management alternative in any of them. Rather, proposed conservation measures in the draft plans are based on inferior science-—or no science at all—-and many would be inadequate to conserve and restore sage-grouse populations.

The BLM issued additional guidance last April (link) for how planners could resolve inadequate and inconsistent conservation measures related to certain land use in the draft plans. But this time agency leadership scarcely mentioned the NTT report and some of their recommendations were less protective than the National Technical Team advised. The April guidance also allowed exceptions to scientific recommendations for planning areas in Wyoming. Rather than close priority sage-grouse habitat to new oil and gas development (as the NTT report recommends), planners in Wyoming can adopt less protective measures proffered by the state. As Defenders has previously reported, key components of Wyoming’s “core area” conservation strategy lack scientific support and are unlikely to conserve sage-grouse long-term.

This Wyoming exception may be a prelude to finalization of the federal plans. This month federal and state officials will hold a series of internal meetings to review and compare proposed conservation measures for 14 draft plans (the BLM finalized the first of 15 plans in June). A memorandum organizing these meetings (link) makes no reference to the NTT report and further elevates the role of western states in the federal planning process. Some states have been pressing federal planners to adopt even less protective measures for sage-grouse than what the BLM had proposed in its draft plans.

The BLM now faces a conundrum. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider the best available science when determining whether a species warrants listing under the ESA. Because BLM has declined to adopt conservation measures in its own NTT report, their proposed management alternatives are not based on the best available science for conserving and recovering sage-grouse. If the BLM hopes to obviate the need to list the grouse under the ESA, then it must strengthen conservation measures in its draft plans to protect and restore the species. Yet, their national guidance to planners continues to backslide from the best available science represented in the NTT report.

Federal public lands are key to conserving sage-grouse and hundreds of other species that depend on sagebrush habitats. The National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy is an extraordinary opportunity to proactively plan for sage-grouse conservation and potentially avoid the need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. Federal planners can still salvage the federal planning process for sage-grouse. The NTT report recommends science-based prescriptions for managing the grouse and its habitat. The BLM should simply follow its own recommendations for conserving sage-grouse to produce final plans that are sufficient to protect and restore the species.

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Sage-Grouse in the Crosshairs

It’s “silly season” in Congress. It’s an election year and the legislative session is winding down, which means that certain legislators and special interests have begun to purposefully introduce nonsensical legislation in the House and Senate this summer as part of an endless game of Congressional politics. These bills are not intended to advance public policy, but to force a response from political opponents in an attempt to gain an advantage in elections back home.

Sage-grouse, the charismatic ambassador of the Sagebrush Sea, have recently become a target in this deceptive practice. More than a decade after being petitioned for listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally consider the sage-grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. The date certain for a listing decision has also prompted federal agencies and western states to engage in unprecedented planning processes to implement new conservation measures to protect the grouse.

Unfortunately, there are some in Congress who just can’t help but politicize wildlife conservation. This month, legislation was introduced in the House and the Senate, euphemistically named “Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act,” that would muck up the listing process for sage-grouse by allowing states to bar the federal government from even considering the species for protection for at least 10 years. This bill is bad for sage-grouse, bad for public lands, bad for stakeholders and bad government. Defenders of Wildlife has identified at least seven reasons why Congress should ignore it.

The legislation is bad for sage-grouse. The grouse is suffering from death by a thousand cuts—at least 26 land uses and related factors affect the species. Any Congressional effort to extend the current timeline would subvert the established science-based administrative process the Fish and Wildlife Service uses for determining whether a species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. Recent data indicate that sage-grouse populations continue to decline. Given the conservation challenges facing the sage-grouse, a listing determination is overdue.

The legislation is bad for public lands. If we don’t address sage-grouse conservation needs now, then saving the species from potential extinction – which includes conserving its remaining sagebrush habitat, much of which is on public lands – will be even more difficult, expensive and disruptive in the future.

The legislation is bad for landowners who want to work to improve habitat on private lands for sage-grouse, but need federal assistance to do so. Those funds may dry up if the sage-grouse listing decision is delayed for a decade.

The legislation is bad for stakeholders that would like certainty about sage-grouse conservation and the species’ status. Resource developers and landowners can better plan for their own activities in sage-grouse habitat when they know what will be required to protect and recover the species.

The legislation is unnecessary. Current planning efforts are on schedule to finalize conservation plans in time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider them in its listing decision in 2015. Resources, timelines and the incentive for these processes are hinged on the current decision deadline. The challenge facing these planning processes is not the need for more time, but greater resolve among federal agencies and western states to do what is required to conserve sage-grouse. The current decision date ensures continued federal and state commitment to conservation efforts.

The legislation is a beachhead for delaying any sage-grouse listing indefinitely. Will the Fish and Wildlife Service actually be allowed to consider the sage-grouse for listing after 10 years? Or will Congress delay listing again?

The legislation is a bad precedent. The Endangered Species Act has proven to be overwhelmingly successful in preventing the extinction of species since its enactment 40 years ago. Congress should allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to process species listing decisions under the act in accordance with the best available science. Some species have waited for more than 30 years for agency action. Congress should not further delay these scientific decisions by micromanaging the Endangered Species Act on a species-by-species basis, and undermining important administrative decision-making under the law.

Stay tuned, as we expect to see more silliness from this Congress before the session finally ends.


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We’ve Got to Protect What’s Left of the Sagebrush Sea

Despite its immense size, the Sagebrush Sea is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Half the landscape has already been lost to agriculture and urban development, and millions of more acres have been damaged by invasive weeds, unnatural fire, and harmful land uses.

The continued loss and degradation of sagebrush grasslands threatens dozens of native flora and fauna, including the charismatic greater sage-grouse. The sage-grouse is a candidate species for listing under theEndangered Species Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to consider the bird for protection in 2015.

Restoring degraded sagebrush habitat is difficult, expensive and often unsuccessful. And even where restoration works, new research led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found that it could take decades before sage-grouse use the area again. The scientists found that burned habitat reseeded after fire in the Great Basin might require more than 20 years to regrow suitable sagebrush habitat for grouse and other species. This is bad news for an ecosystem that is prone to huge and devastating wildfires.

According to PhysOrg, “historically, the Great Basin burned in smaller, patchier conflagrations, at intervals on the order of once per century. Managers are now seeing sagebrush country burn every 20 years in parts of the Great Basin, fueled by drought and vigorous non-natives like cheatgrass.”

Federal agencies manage more than half of remaining sage-grouse habitat in the West. Prompted by the pending listing decision, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have initiated anunprecedented planning process to update management plans with new conservation measures for the species. The new USGS research is important to this effort. As the authors stated, “conservation and protection of ‘what’s left’ is increasingly important [for sage-grouse conservation].”

Defenders of Wildlife has been involved in the planning process from the start, meeting with administration officials, submitting comments on the draft plans and reporting where proposed conservation measures could fail to conserve and restore sage-grouse. Throughout this process, Defenders has ardently held that federal agencies must, first and foremost, protect what’s left of the Sagebrush Sea! Management plans must exclude disturbance and degradation in the best remaining habitat for sage-grouse, and prioritize restoration in areas where restoration methods have the greatest chance for success.

We look forward to working with agencies and partners to finalize effective conservation plans to protect the Sagebrush Sea for sage-grouse and other sensitive species, and people who live, work and love the landscape.


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Failing Report Card on Federal Efforts to Conserve Sage-grouse

Ranging over ten western states, greater sage-grouse have lost nearly half their original habitat, and their populations have experienced long-term declines. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the bird warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act – a decision that sparked concern among industries like oil and gas development and agriculture, which would prefer to use sage-grouse habitat for their own purposes. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and  the U.S. Forest Service as a cooperating agency, set out to improve management plans to support sage-grouse recovery before the Fish and Wildlife Service makes its formal listing decision in 2015. This new planning strategy is intended to update nearly 100 federal land use and management plans with new conservation measures for sage-grouse on 60 million acres of public land. Needless to say, given the inherent conflicts of interest, we were concerned that the needs of sage-grouse might not be prioritized in the planning process.

Today, Defenders released “In the Red: How Proposed Conservation Plans Fail to Protect Greater Sage-Grouse.” This comprehensive report documents how draft plans released under the federal National Greater Sage-grouse Planning Strategy fail to adopt conservation measures required to conserve and restore sage-grouse and their habitat.

Sage-grouse management plans, Defenders of Wildlife

The planning strategy partitions existing sage-grouse habitat up among 15 different management plans. ©Defenders of Wildlife

Greater sage-grouse are one of the best studied species in the West, and we poured over reams of published research and government and scientific reports to identify key strategies to conserve the grouse. We used these conservation measures to evaluate how well BLM’s draft plans would conserve and restore sage-grouse and their habitat.

What we found wasn’t pretty: Many of the conservation measures in the draft plans are biologically or legally inadequate, and must be improved in final plans in order to provide for the long-term conservation of sage-grouse. The plans were also markedly inconsistent, proposing dramatically different conservation measures for sage-grouse range-wide and even between adjacent planning areas. While sage-grouse occur across large landscapes, the planning process was partitioned into 15 different areas, each with its own approach to protecting sage-grouse. Dividing the habitat along these imaginary lines may be helpful from a human perspective, but not really for sage-grouse.

One measure that the BLM utterly failed to implement is designating new reserves for sage-grouse protection. Though the agency analyzed approximately 44 million acres of priority sage-grouse habitat for special designation, they only proposed to designate about 50,000 acres as reserves. This would mean that less than one percent of sage-grouse habitat would be specially protected for the species.

The good news is that federal planners have another chance to adopt effective conservation measures for sage-grouse in the final plans. In fact, most of the draft plans analyzed our key conservation measures, but simply declined to include them in their proposed management schemes. This means that the BLM doesn’t have to start over with the planning process to issue strong final plans for sage-grouse.

Federal lands are key to sage-grouse conservation and recovery. Our report includes recommendations for BLM to ensure that public lands, which contain the majority of remaining sagebrush habitat, contribute to the conservation and restoration of the species. Our recommendations to federal planners include:

  • Finalize the draft plans together in a centralized process that can more effectively address their many deficiencies and resolve their discrepancies so that the 15 final plans implement consistent, adequate, regulatory conservation measures to conserve and restore sage-grouse and their habitat.
  • Conserve essential habitat to support sage-grouse conservation and restoration, and permanently protect the most important areas as sagebrush reserves to serve as strongholds for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species.
  • Focus habitat restoration on areas most likely to improve habitat quality and connectivity to expand sage-grouse current range and reclaim parts of historic range for use by the species.
  • Account for the effects of climate change on sagebrush habitat by anticipating future habitat and species shifts and supporting habitat resilience to climate change.

Although sage-grouse may be the best-known species in the Sagebrush Sea, they are not the only species of conservation concern : more than 350 other fish, wildlife and plants in sagebrush grasslands are also at risk. Greater sage-grouse are an “umbrella species” for the landscape – by adopting the conservation measures in our report, the BLM can protect sage-grouse and benefit a host of other species dependent on sagebrush habitat. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to implement transformative, lasting conservation measures for an entire imperiled ecosystem. Let’s hope we get it right.


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It’s Not Just About the Grouse

There is a lot of talk, in the media, on the Hill and among federal and state agencies, about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pending decision to protect the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Western states are anxious over the potential impact that listing the grouse as threatened or endangered would have on a multitude of land uses across the Sagebrush Sea. Industries question whether the species even warrants protection. And, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages more than half of remaining sage-grouse habitat, has embarked on an unprecedented conservation planning process in the hopes of forestalling a listing determination for the bird.

Unfortunately, much of the loud and rancorous debate over sage-grouse conservation misses the larger point. The greater sage-grouse is just the tip of the spear, the canary in the coal-mine – you pick the metaphor – its decline is an indicator of how we are managing to mismanage sagebrush grasslands. It’s not just greater-sage grouse that are in trouble; more than 350 other species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Likewise, many species that occur in other ecosystems managed by the BLM are also under consideration for protective listing, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, Sonoran desert tortoise, New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, Gunnison sage-grouse and a suite of endemic plants. The sheer volume of species in need of protection presents a logistical nightmare: if the BLM only focuses on conserving one species at a time, and only when species have declined to the point of needing Endangered Species Act protection, then the agency will be in constant crisis, and our ability to actually save imperiled species will be greatly reduced.

The case of the greater sage-grouse is a prime example of this predicament. Yet, in the current conservation planning process the BLM seems to be focusing only on how to better manage greater sage-grouse populations (and in our opinion, not doing so very successfully), without seeing the bigger picture that clearly points to a need to reevaluate the overall management of our public lands.

The BLM is a so-called “multiple-use” agency, and BLM lands are available for almost any use imaginable, from wildlife conservation to oil and gas development, renewable energy development, off-road vehicle use, mining, grazing, to Burning Man. Except where prohibited by Congress, the BLM has historically sought to accommodate all of these uses nearly everywhere on public lands.

Though the laws governing BLM and its multiple uses for public lands have only weak conservation standards, BLM is supposed to manage for “sustained yield,” and avoid “unnecessary and undue degradation” of natural resources, in addition to complying with environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. In other words, the BLM should be managing our public lands sustainably, so they can continue to provide benefits to the American people today, tomorrow and for future generations.

In order for this kind of sustainability to happen, the BLM must rethink its approach to management – from authorizing every use under the sun to sustainable landscape planning. Seeds of this (r)evolution are present. The agency recently released a policy statement regarding landscape-level planning to commit the agency to more forward-looking decisions based on better science, but implementation is largely up to field managers.

When the BLM completes its current round of plan revisions, amending over 80 of its land use plans at the cost of millions of dollars, will it have to turn around and do it all again to meet the conservation needs of the next imperiled species? Or will it use this wake-up call provided by the greater sage-grouse to do something bold and different?

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Babbitt on Grouse: National Strategy Needed to Conserve Iconic Species

This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The University of California-Davis School of Law hosted an important seminar this month marking this milestone in the Act’s history. The agenda for “ESA at 40: Examining its Past and Exploring its Future” was loaded with timely presentations offered by an impressive slate of conservation leaders, practitioners and luminaries, including Defenders of Wildlife President, Jamie Rappaport Clark.

Jamie’s presentation was focused on the role of carefully crafted, scientifically viable and publicly transparent conservation agreements made to protect and restore candidate species and their habitat—that is, species that are candidates for protection, but are not yet listed under the Endangered Species Act. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt spoke on a similar topic in his keynote address, and used thecurrent sage-grouse planning process to highlight problems with conservation planning that lacks key ingredients for success.

The former Secretary reminded attendees that “perhaps the most important lesson learned from the last forty years is that most species have become endangered through loss of habitat.” It’s a simple truism, but one that is often forgotten amid the cacophony of opposition to species protection.

It follows then, that a successful conservation strategy must, first and foremost, adopt enforceable, minimum standards to protect habitat. Conservation planning, cannot, as Mr. Babbitt noted, “be reduced to a process of political bargaining in search for the lowest common denominator of agreement.”

However, it seems that’s where the federal National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy may be headed…


Greater Sage-Grouse Current Distribution and BLM Lands

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for half of remaining sage-grouse habitat, and the Forest Service manages an additional 10 percent. These agencies are trying to avoid a listing for sage-grouse by initiating a massive planning process to update more than 100 land use and management plans with new measures to conserve the species. Unfortunately, and although more attention to conservation is usually a good thing, the sage-grouse plans released to date leave much to be desired.

As Mr. Babbitt explained, the BLM, “eager to avoid controversy,” has pursued a strategy “notable mainly for its lack of prescriptions to conserve sage-grouse” and “delegated planning to agency managers across the West without delineating minimum standards that must be included if plans are to be successful.” In other words, the new plans must do more to protect sage-grouse from habitat loss and degradation.

Mr. Babbitt summarized the problem as only the former Secretary can: “it is little short of fantasy to imagine that local and state BLM offices, without clear guidance from Washington, and under pressure from drillers, miners, ranchers and other resource users, can propose management prescriptions that will meet the legal test of the ESA.”

Fortunately, the former Secretary also explained what an improved sage-grouse planning process should look like. He recommended that federal agencies need to roll up individual sage-grouse plans into a single, range-wide conservation strategy. This would help eliminate the inconsistencies and inadequacies in individual plans. And he urged the Obama administration to specially protect the most essential habitat for sage-grouse. A system of sagebrush reserves would benefit sage-grouse and hundreds of other species that use sagebrush habitat.

As Mr. Babbitt concluded, “the sage-grouse and the Sagebrush Sea of the inland West are an enduring part of our natural heritage and must be preserved.” We agree, and the current sage-grouse planning process, if done correctly, is an unprecedented opportunity to advance this goal.

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Sage-Grouse: Ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea

When they’re not engaged in their flamboyant spring mating displays, greater sage-grouse spend the rest of year making a living on vast sagebrush grasslands in the West called the “Sagebrush Sea.” In fact, sage-grouse cannot survive without sagebrush, and they need lots of it. This makes sage-grouse an ideal “umbrella” species for sagebrush habitats. 

Umbrella species typically require large expanses of healthy habitat to survive. Because of that requirement, protecting these species also benefits other fish, wildlife and plants within these large areas. Animals of any size can be an umbrella species. Large carnivores, like grizzly bears, are umbrella species for the forests where they roam, and little insects, like the bay checkerspot butterfly, serve the same role for rare native grasslands where they occur.

Though their numbers are diminishing, sage-grouse still live on about 100 million acres in the West. Individual groups of grouse are known to migrate up to 100 miles every year as they move between seasonal habitats. These expansive areas include sagebrush habitat, but also lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, aspen groves, alkali flats, salt flats, sand dunes and rocky bluffs.

Managed properly, this diverse mosaic of habitats supports hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, including the powerful northern harrier, the tiny pygmy rabbit, the fleet-footed pronghorn and the gorgeous Lahontan cutthroat trout. The sagebrush ecosystem is a migratory corridor for birds and important winter habitat for mule deer and elk. At least 15 species of raptors use sagebrush grasslands, and a full complement of carnivores inhabit the landscape, from weasels to mountain lions.

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in the world. Adults measure 8-11 inches and weigh a half-pound to a pound. The pygmy rabbit is also one of only two rabbits that digs its own burrow. It is typically found foraging under stands of big sagebrush species on deep soils, an increasingly rare habitat type in the Sagebrush Sea.

Unfortunately, as sage-grouse have declined in the West, so have a multitude of other species. More than 350 plant, fish and wildlife species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Of these, approximately 60 species are listed or are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Making matters worse, threats posed by improper land use, weed incursion, wildfire and climate change are increasing on the landscape. Continued habitat loss and degradation is threatening a suite of sagebrush birds, including the sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher. Excessive pumping and water diversions are drying up streams and springs, imperiling native fish. Livestock grazing and fire have severely reduced habitat for the pygmy rabbit, and oil and gas drilling has eliminated winter range for mule deer.

Sage-grouse to the rescue!

Federal and state agencies are currently engaged in an unprecedented planning process to conserve sage-grouse across the West. The new plans will affect more than 60 million acres of public lands. If these agencies adhere to the science and abide by their own planning directives, the conservation measures they develop and implement for sage-grouse will have enormous benefits for other species. New land use restrictions, wildlife reserves and restoration programs would ensure that sage-grouse, and a multitude of other fish and wildlife species, survive and flourish on the landscape. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily involved in the planning process and invite you to join us in this important endeavor!

Umbrella species serve as ambassadors for the ecosystems where they live and, while many ecosystems have an umbrella species, few are as charismatic as sage-grouse. The Sagebrush Sea and all of the fish and wildlife that live there are fortunate to be represented by this charming bird.

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Jonah-II-Gas-Field-300×199 wilderness society

A Sage-Grouse Natural History


Sage-grouse were easier to find in 1900.  (©Nevada Historical Society, Robert Fulton Collection)

Sage-grouse were easier to find in 1900. (©Nevada Historical Society, Robert Fulton Collection)

The history of the American West is told in the tales of those who traveled, lived and loved the land. For sagebrush grasslands, these narratives often included reference to, reverence of, or concern for one of its most charismatic residents: the sage-grouse.

The colorful history of the sage-grouse has been chronicled by Native Americans, explorers, settlers, government surveyors, naturalists, and in some of the most important accounts written about the West and the environment. Lewis and Clark first described sage-grouse in their journals in 1805 (Captain Clark even made a drawing of sage-grouse in his journal), and Rachel Carson devoted pages to sage-grouse and their habitat in her seminal book, Silent Spring, more than 150 years later.

The earliest indicator of the significance of the grouse on the landscape is evinced by the wide recognition afforded the bird in Native American languages. Many tribes utilized the sage-grouse for food and emulated the grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. The names they gave to sage-grouse are many and diverse, including “Seedskadee,” “Sisk-a-dee” and similar variants used by Rocky Mountain tribes (the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming is named after sage-grouse); tribes in the Great Basin called the bird “Ooˊ-jah” and “See-yook”; and tribes in California “Kōpˊ-te”;  “Hooˊ-dze-hah,” and “Hood´-ze-ah´.”

Later, westward settlers frequently reported sage-grouse in their diaries, and depended on the bird for food in places where often no other game was available. Our names for places and landmarks throughout the Interior West today include countless “sage hen” and “sage grouse” creeks, basins, flats, hills, trails and roads in the West—further evidence of the species’ importance and historic ubiquity in the region.


No fewer than 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse today, including oil and gas drilling. (©Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society)

No fewer than 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse today, including oil and gas drilling. (©Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society)

Prior to the turn of the 20th Century, sage-grouse were still so plentiful that westerners described flocks that “darkened” and “clouded” the sky in Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. The birds were so abundant that they might have controlled grasshopper and cricket outbreaks, a phenomenon that taxpayers now spend millions of dollars to manage with insecticides. In one amazing report of sage-grouse from the late 1800s the observer compared sage-grouse to the “old-time flights of passenger pigeons.”

Unfortunately, however, the story of sage-grouse is also one of the species’ decline in the West. Sage-grouse numbers began to diminish with the loss and degradation of the high desert, the wide-open landscape most imagine when picturing the iconic American West. In 1916, William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Even before then, Oregon had reduced both the season and bag limit for sage-grouse in 1908, and by 1922 the state game warden worried that sage-grouse may become extinct in the state. Wyoming closed hunting for sage-grouse between 1937 and 1950. Other states also closed or reduced hunting seasons for extended periods. Although sage-grouse populations tend to cycle up and down, the overall trend was set.

While a number of factors have contributed to declining sage-grouse populations, Rachel Carson zeroed in on the federal government’s range “improvement” programs as a primary cause of disappearing sage-grouse and other wildlife. Beginning the 1950s-60s, and at the behest of the livestock industry, federal agencies declared war on sagebrush, burning, plowing and destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of the native vegetation in favor of non-native forage crops for livestock. Carson pointedly, and poetically, described the effects of these programs on sage-grouse in Silent Spring:

“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeon­ing of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illumi­nated with a sense of the history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread…Along with the plants, animal life, too, [evolved] in har­mony with the searching requirements of the land…The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled.”

The sage-grouse now occupies little more than half of its original range (no longer occurring in many places where Lewis and Clark reported seeing them), and current populations are estimated at less than 10 percent of historic levels. Although the war on sagebrush has generally abated, it still continues in some places. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, transmission corridors, roads, fences, and myriad other factors have also conspired to eliminate sage-grouse from the landscape, and may put them on the endangered species list.

The species’ plight has finally compelled the federal government to initiate a massive planning effort to improve conditions for the grouse. It is our hope that sage-grouse’s rich history in the West can help remind people of what the grouse once meant, and still mean, to America, and can motivate current conservation planning to do all that is required to protect and recover the species. We still have an opportunity to restore sage-grouse and their habitat so that future generations can tell their own tales about the grouse.

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Sage-Grouse Strut Their Stuff

There are few birds in the American West that know how to party like sage-grouse. Oh sure, you’ve got your hummingbirds with their swooping and diving and your huge, gawky sandhill cranes with their flamboyant, noisy mating rituals. But for sheer spectacle, nothing beats the sage-grouse and now is the perfect time to see them strut their stuff because it’s mating season out West.

Sage-grouse dancing occurs from March to May. In early spring at dawn, and often at dusk, sage-grouse congregate on “leks”— ancestral strutting grounds to which the birds return year after year. To attract a hen, males jockey for position, fan their tail feathers and swell their breasts to reveal yellow air sacs, and then, just as quickly, deflate them to make an utterly unique “swish-swish-coooopoink!” sound that can be heard from over a mile away. Scientists aren’t certain what about this flamboyant display is attractive to females, but it works. You can watch it here

Sage-grouse are the charismatic ambassador of the “Sagebrush Sea,” a term given to the vast sagebrush prairie that once sprawled across thirteen western states and three Canadian provinces. Lewis and Clarkdescribed the grouse in their journal as the “cock of the plains”, and nineteenth century travelers reported seeing huge flocks of sage-grouse that darkened the sky as they lifted from valley floors. Native Americans emulated sage-grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. Settlers hunted the bird for food, and even collected sage-grouse eggs in spring for table use. Centuries of westerners have admired sage-grouse as fellow dwellers of the high desert, and birders travel from around the world to see sage-grouse in the wild.

Unfortunately, like too many other iconic western wildlife species, sage-grouse are in trouble. Sagebrush grasslands are a heavily used landscape. Humans have plowed, sprayed, burned, drilled, developed, mined and grazed millions of acres of sagebrush habitat. The remaining habitat is fragmented and degraded by weeds, wildfire, juniper encroachment, utility corridors, roads and fences. Sage-grouse range has been reduced by almost half with the loss of sagebrush steppe and grouse populations have declined to just ten percent of their historic numbers.

William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse in 1916, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Conservationists have heeded his call and launched a west-wide campaign to protect the grouse and the Sagebrush Sea. After struggling for more than a decade, we finally got a break in 2011 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed to review sage-grouse for listing under the Endangered Species Act by 2015. The date certain for a range-wide sage-grouse 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. In Washington, DC, we are urging the Obama administration and Congressional representatives to strengthen conservation initiatives for sage-grouse, and out West we are diligently working to ensure that new development won’t harm the species.

But sometimes you’ve just got to make time to enjoy these spectacular birds. We invite you attend a show at a sage-grouse lek this spring. Dress warmly, bring binoculars and coffee, and be ready for fun. And then join Defenders to conserve sage-grouse so that they may continue to impress for generations to come.

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House Farm Bill: Continued Subsidies at the Cost of Wildlife

House Farm Bill: Continued Subsidies at the Cost of Wildlife

America’s wildlife benefit from what has been more than $5 billion in annual conservation support through the Farm Bill, but these investments in our natural heritage are threatened by crop insurance subsidies from the same bill that encourage farmers to plow grassland, wetland and forest. While the Senate’s version of the 2012 Farm Bill contains an amendment that requires farmers receiving crop insurance subsidies to take basic conservation measures to protect soil, water and wildlife (provisions known as “conservation compliance”), the draft House Farm Bill does not include conservation compliance. Failure to link conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies could have major impacts on species like sage grouse.Map of sage grouse range and agricultural expansion

Sage grouse are dependent on sage brush habitat for nesting and food sources and much of this sage brush habitat overlaps with farmland in the western U.S. –  31 percent of sage grouse range is privately owned.

New analysis from the Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop production is leading to grassland (and wetland) loss in parts of the sage grouse range. More than half a million acres of habitat has been plowed under in just three years.

Conservation compliance has been proven to protect clean water, prevent soil erosion and preserve wildlife on millions of acres of America’s farmland. In order to protect vital habitat for sage grouse and other species that depend on grasslands and wetlands, the House should take similar action to the Senate and add conservation compliance requirements back into crop insurance subsidies as the bill moves through the chamber later this week.

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Greater sage-grouse the focus of a new conservation planning effort

Greater sage-grouse the focus of a new conservation planning effort

Photo: C. Robert Smith/Elk Meadow Images/National Geographic Stock

This week the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have initiated an effort to develop new conservation measures for greater sage-grouse, a sage brush ecosystem dependent species that has faced a dramatic decline, losing more than half its population since the late 1960s as a result of development across the western United States.  The greater sage-grouse is famous for its elaborate mating dances, but their significance goes much further – the decline of sage-grouse indicates a downward trend in the fragile sage brush ecosystems of the west, in which many species depend on the greater sage-grouse.  If the sage-grouse is in trouble, so are many other species.

Threats to the greater sage-grouse identified by the agencies include minerals development (oil and gas, coal, hard rock etc.), energy transmission, renewable energy development, fire, invasive species, grazing and off highway vehicle use.  Impacts from climate change only amplify these stressors.  Cumulatively, these threats have lead to a decline of greater sage-grouse on public lands at the same time that development and land use change has impacted populations that depend on private lands.  Between the BLM and Forest Service, 59% of the greater sage-grouse range occurs on public lands.

Since April 2010 the greater sage-grouse has been considered “warranted but precluded” from Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, meaning the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considers the species potentially in need of listing as endangered, but has higher priority species that need to be dealt with in the near term.  A recent settlement has put the FWS on track to make a final listing decision on the greater sage-grouse in 2015.

It is in response to this ramped up timeline that the BLM and FS have jumped into action.  The FWS pointed to deficient land use plans as a primary reason that greater sage-grouse do not have adequate regulatory mechanisms to stop the species decline.  The agencies hope that this process will put regulatory mechanisms in place that are strong enough to preclude ESA listing.

The new process will split the sage-grouse range into east and west regions and split even further into smaller regional environmental impact statements.  The planning process will look at 77 planning areas on BLM and Forest Service lands and seek to amend those plans that need enhanced greater sage-grouse conservation measures to protect the species.  It will also envelop planning process currently underway, including Wyoming’s great sage-grouse plan, and should incorporate emerging sources of information, like climate change impacts studied in the BLM’s Rapid Ecoregional Assessments, as they become available.

Scoping comments on the greater sage-grouse planning process are due February 7, 2012.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.