Hatching a plan for sage grouse

  In 1834, ornithologist John Townsend described flushing hundreds of grouse from the sagebrush as he rode through the Green River Valley, and in the 1880s, naturalist George Grinnell reported flocks of the birds darkening the skies near Casper. But by 1906, Wyoming’s sage grouse population was declining, and, except for a few short-lived rebounds, it has continued to slip. The greater sage grouse – the species found in Wyoming – now occupies only about half of its pre-settlement range, and in some areas of the state, its population has declined by more than 80 percent.

Fossil fuel development has shouldered much of the blame for interfering with the grouse’s mating rituals and encroaching on its habitat. But a new report from the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, commissioned by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, in July, suggests that what ails the sage grouse depends on where it lives. Booming oil and gas operations, while significant, are not the only culprits in the sage grouse’s decline, according to the report.

The team’s 21 recommendations reflect the wide variety of threats to the bird, and aim to help Wyoming keep it off the endangered species list. The group’s suggestions range from minimizing the footprint of new housing developments to aggressively controlling invasive species to educating the public about the sage grouse’s predicament. The team estimates the cost of implementation at $27.3 million over two years.

The group deliberately did not rank its recommendations but did say that a statewide effort to map the bird’s distribution should be a priority, according to Bob Budd, chairman of the team and executive director of the Wyoming Natural Resources Trust. “If we don’t know where the birds are and what habitat they’re using,” he says, “it’s very hard to plan for anything.”

Key to the bird’s recovery will be figuring out which activities have the most impact in which locations. “If you take the species and look at it across its range, it may be that oil and gas is a major stressor (in one location),” Budd explains. “In another area it may not be. Likewise with housing.”

The state is right not to single out oil and gas activities, according to David Naugle, an associate professor of large-scale wildlife ecology at the University of Montana. Naugle, who has studied the effects of energy development on the birds, says, “Oil and gas is the new kid on the block in terms of human footprint on the sage grouse habitat.” But “if we only plan for oil and gas, we’ll fail.”

With an eye toward avoiding an official endangered species listing, the team recommended that the state work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop “candidate conservation agreements.” These agreements would encourage local governments and individuals to voluntarily protect grouse on their land; in exchange, the property owners wouldn’t be subject to additional restrictions if the species did eventually receive federal protection.

The sage grouse narrowly missed being added to the endangered species list in 2005, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a controversial determination that it was not imperiled enough to deserve federal protection. Julie MacDonald, then-deputy assistant secretary of wildlife, fish, and parks, was suspected of interfering with scientific findings that supported the listing of several species up for review, including the grouse. MacDonald resigned in May of this year, after the Interior Department’s inspector general reported that she had broken federal rules and inappropriately shared information with private groups, and the sage grouse listing is still the subject of a pending court case.

Budd concedes that avoiding the federal regulation that accompanies an official listing is part of the state’s motive for conservation efforts. “If you are a realtor, (a listing) will reach out and touch you. If you are a rancher, it will reach out and touch you. If you are a conservationist, it will reach out and touch you,” he says. But he also emphasizes that this is not the primary reason the state got involved: “There is – number one – a desire not to see a species that we all grew up with endangered.”

If the state moves forward with voluntary conservation agreements, the sage grouse will become the first test of the program in Wyoming, according to Pat Deibert, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming.

It’s unclear how effective voluntary efforts would be at stabilizing the sage grouse population, Deibert says. But she hopes the bird will benefit from the same type of cooperation that’s helped the endangered Wyoming toad. In the toad’s case, landowners have volunteered to have tadpoles and adults released on their property with the promise that they won’t be penalized for killing a few of the amphibians in the process of normal business.

Now, the sage grouse’s fate is in Gov. Freudenthal’s hands, as he decides how many of the team’s suggestions to follow and how much funding to request from the state’s legislature. “The devil is going to be in the details of how (the recommendations) are implemented,” Naugle says. “The key is to keep big, healthy populations, spread them out and not put all the eggs in one basket.”

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