Greater Sage-Grouse Denied Federal Protection

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 10, 2005, (ENS) - The greater sage-grouse will not be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday.

The decision is a major victory for Western lawmakers and developers, who said listing the species would impose tighter restrictions on land use and hamper economic growth across much of the Western United States.

The habitat of the sage-grouse spreads across 150 million acres of 11 Western states and includes large tracts of public land targeted for oil and gas development.

Listing the species under the ESA would mean increased efforts to protect the grouse and its habitat from activities, such as drilling, development and grazing, that require federal permits.

"This is the right decision for the sage-grouse, for conservation and for the West," said Colorado Governor Bill Owens, chairman of the Western Governors Association. "It demonstrates that the states are ready and willing partners in the protection of the country's endangered species."

Loss - and fragmentation - of habitat is the primary threat to the species, which many conservation biologists believe is a key indicator of the health of the sagebrush ecosystem.

The greater sage-grouse is a chicken-like, ground-dwelling bird that can weigh as much as 7 pounds. grouse

Western governors and business interests lobbied heavily against the listing of the greater sage-grouse. (Photo by Gary Kramer courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
Found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to more than 9,000 feet, the grouse is highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.

Sage-grouse have been disappearing since 1900, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has says numbers have declined between 69 and 99 percent in recent decades.

The agency's review of the species estimates that some 100,000 to 500,000 individual grouse exist across 11 Western states - conservationists cite a figure of 140,000.

Sage-grouse populations are estimated to have declined an average of 3.5 percent per year from 1965 to 1985, but the federal wildlife agency said the rate of decline from 1985 to 2003 slowed to 0.37 percent annually for the species across its entire range.

"The status review clearly illustrates the need for continued efforts to conserve sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat on a long-term basis," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams. "I commend federal and state agencies as well as the local working groups for their current efforts to maintain or improve sagebrush habitat and encourage them to continue to move forward with the new plans."

Conservationists, who petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species, say the conclusion not to list the grouse reflects the Bush administration's pattern of making political, rather than scientific, decisions regarding the protection of imperiled species.

"The state and local working groups were convened to avoid listing the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act more than recover the species from the threat of extinction," said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign. "Local conservation plans are mostly window dressing and are insufficient to save the grouse."

Critics of the administration's decision point to the role played by a political appointee with no background in wildlife biology in editing material used by a panel of agency experts that recommended not listing the grouse.

Internal Fish and Wildlife Service documents released last month by Salvo's organization showed that the panel that received two reviews of the species status - one by federal biologists and one by deputy assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald grouse

Sage-grouse have elaborate courtship rituals that take place at the same sites year after year - biologists say the noise and disturbance from nearby oil and gas drilling can make it difficult for the males' booming calls to be heard by their intended mates. (Photo by Dave Menke courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
The material submitted by MacDonald, a civil engineer with a master's degree in management, recommended a 600-page analysis of the grouse, compiled by more than 100 wildlife experts with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), should be treated "as we would treat an industry publication."

WAFWA's assessment found that millions of grouse inhabited areas of 13 states and three Canadian provinces in the 19th century - MacDonald labeled this "simply a fairy tale" and said the population declines in the report were all "badly flawed in some manner."

She also questioned the conclusion of biologists that the grouse is wholly dependent on sagebrush for food and cover during the winter - MacDonald wrote "they will eat other stuff if it is available."

Williams denied that the decision not to list the grouse was based on politics.

"I have reviewed the work completed by our scientists and I am confident that they have conducted a thorough and rigorous review and their recommendation is based on the best available science," he said.

Salvo said his organization's attorneys would be reviewing the decision and "advising us on our options."

"The only science upon which the Bush administration based this decision was political science," Salvo said. "They are paying back their political base in the grazing and oil and gas industries."