Sage Grouse Must Wait


Ever spent hours waiting for assistance in a doctor’s office while other, more urgent patients were seen first? Then you can imagine how some of us feel about Friday’s decision to leave the sage grouse hanging about in the waiting room.
On March 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) concluded that the sage grouse, a rare bird native to America’s dwindling sagebrush plains, could face extinction if it doesn’t receive protections under the Endangered Species Act. However, the agency says it is currently too busy working on more urgent cases to move forward with listing the birds at this time.
The agency designated the sage grouse as “warranted but precluded” for federal protection – a category the birds could remain in for years, even decades, while their numbers shrink and their remaining habitat becomes more and more attractive to developers. Sage grouse have already vanished from nearly half of their historic territory, and the prairie and sagebrush lands that the rare birds depend on have increasingly become targets for oil, gas and wind energy development as well as increased agricultural use and grazing.
 The plight of the sage grouse demonstrates the urgent need to provide additional resources to the agencies charged with protecting our nation’s most vulnerable wildlife. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has proposed a cut in funding for listing endangered species. That needs to change if sage grouse and other species are going to receive the protection they deserve.
Anyone who has heard the drumming of male sage grouse as they perform their mating dance knows that these birds are part of our heritage and the American West. (If you haven’t had the chance, check out this great video from FWS!) And the fact that sage grouse are in trouble tells us that their sagebrush habitat is in trouble, too.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced plans on Friday to identify priority habitat for the sage grouse, and require additional reviews for any projects that might be sited in this priority habitat.  If the BLM proposal works as it should, it could help defuse a growing threat to the sage grouse and their habitat: increasing development pressure from wind energy, whose proponents were quick to seize on the FWS announcement as good news for wind developers.
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are key to our energy future and energy independence. But poorly planned wind farms can harm the birds, driving them from their breeding grounds and destroying habitat with turbines and transmission lines.
Smart planning will help us avoid repeating past mistakes by siting wind farms in places where wind energy can be harnessed responsibly – without impacting imperiled sage grouse. Responsible energy development must take land and wildlife needs into consideration. So while sage grouse twiddle their feathers in the ESA’s waiting room, all stakeholders have a responsibility to work together to find ways to help sage grouse make a strong comeback.

Cat Lazaroff is communications director for Defenders of Wildlife.