20100323_image002In a decision long anticipated by sportsmen and conservationists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Friday that the greater sage grouse will be designated a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The “warranted, but precluded” assessment for the popular upland gamebird, which occupies barely half of its traditional habitat, was startling but not unexpected news for the North American Grouse Partnership, an organization dedicated to the conservation of native grouse and their habitats, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Willard Heck, NAGP chairman of the board, said, “Our organization was formed in 1999 because of long-term downward trends in sage grouse populations. For decades, sportsmen, ranchers, developers and the scientific community saw this day approaching, yet we didn’t work together well enough to avoid it. This population assessment is both a failure and a clear opportunity to rededicate ourselves to healthy Western landscapes.”

Sage grouse populations historically encompassed enormous expanses of the Rocky Mountain West, but in recent years the species’ abundance and distribution have declined precipitously. Energy projects – both traditional and renewable – and attendant development can have wide-ranging impacts on habitat use and survival of numerous game species, including sage grouse. Current scientific research on sage grouse has identified population declines with energy development activities. In particular, activity too close to sage grouse leks, or breeding sites, can result in permanent displacement. Curtailed energy development in areas of core habitat, such as the Ryegrass Rim region of western Wyoming, can help address these declines.

In its status review finding for the sage grouse, the USFWS formally concluded that, with few exceptions, existing stipulations governing energy development are ineffective and that current science dictates the need for increased safeguards. The sportsmen stressed that this assessment underscores the necessity for on-the-ground changes in the management of energy projects underway in areas of critical habitat and for better planning of renewable energy projects.

“Sportsmen-conservationists have demonstrated a longstanding investment in maintaining productive populations of sage grouse and in working with the federal government to avoid an endangered listing for this species,” said TRCP Energy Policy Manager Steve Belinda. “Yet the government’s decision regarding the bird’s fate essentially admits that inadequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to sustain existing numbers – and that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies have a poor track record of following through on promises for other candidate species. Major changes are needed in current approaches to land and resource management to balance the needs of grouse in order to reduce the threats to sage grouse habitat and populations.

“We can’t keep on applying inadequate approaches to sage grouse management and expecting good results,” continued Belinda, a former BLM biologist. “The government’s findings are relevant only to the extent that they are used to produce concrete changes in the places that matter most to sage grouse; consequently, energy developments such as the Atlantic Rim and Pinedale Anticline projects should be revisited via the adaptive management process. This decision means nothing if the approaches presently in use, such as insufficient buffer zones around sage grouse leks, are not revised to conform to current, peer-reviewed science.”

In 2008, the TRCP and NAGP formally requested that the Department of the Interior undertake a transparent, public process to address landscape conservation measures for sage grouse habitats on lands administered by the BLM, particularly during energy development activities occurring on these lands. The groups’ “petition for rulemaking” requested that the secretary of the Interior commit the BLM to utilize the best available information on the impacts of energy development on sage grouse and alter agency management of activities currently being developed or planned for development in key sage grouse habitats.

NAGP Executive Director Ralph Rogers said, “Lewis and Clark first described the sage grouse in central Montana. From that point to the west and south, sage grouse would have been a dominant species on the landscape. At the turn of the last century, pioneers traveled from Colorado to Washington on a sea of grassland and shrub steppe with sage grouse flushing everywhere they went. Today they are a keystone species; in shrub steppe where they exist, the landscape is healthy. Where they have disappeared, the land is not functioning properly.”

“Where the landscape is intact and free from exotic plants and diseases, sage grouse exist in traditional numbers,” said Dr. Rollin Sparrowe, a former federal biologist who serves on both the NAGP and TRCP boards. “More than half the remaining sage grouse are on public lands where our federal management agencies can help arrest downward population trends. The USFWS has promised increased resources for private lands, increased coordination with state management agencies, and making sage grouse a higher priority on federal lands. These are all steps in the right direction, but much work remains to be done, particularly concerning the impacts of increased renewable energy development, about which relatively little research has been conducted.”

On March 12, the Natural Resources Conservation Service will deliver details on initiatives to benefit sage grouse on private lands. Randy Gray, NAGP board member from the NRCS (retired) said, “The overall management plans to help this species are in place, and soon additional resources will be available for significant conservation work on private lands. Landowners should contact the NRCS and arrange for technical and cost-share assistance to further the conservation of this charismatic species. Only through the collaborative efforts of government and private landowners can we return sage grouse to previous and sustainable population levels.”

“We know more about what sage grouse need to survive than we ever have before,” concluded Rogers. “This announcement does not herald the end of mineral exploration, grazing or hunting. It also doesn’t mean that we can continue with ‘business as usual.’ That isn’t working. It simply means that we must consider the well-defined needs of sage grouse and other uniquely American species as we go about our business. The continued downward trend of America’s old friend, the sage grouse, is unacceptable. Vast areas of altered landscapes devoid of America’s natural heritage are not a legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren.”

The TRCP believes that to better balance the concerns of fish and wildlife in the face of accelerating energy development, federal land management agencies must follow the conservation tenets outlined in the FACTS for Fish and Wildlife.

The North American Grouse Partnership is a 501-C-3 sportsman/conservation organization dedicated to the conservation of North American grouse, their habitats, and kindred species.

Inspired by the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the TRCP is a coalition of organizations and grassroots partners working together to preserve the traditions of hunting and fishing.