Western Officials to Feds: Sage Grouse Focus Should Remain on Habitat

DOI reviewing conservation practices in effort to keep bird off endangered list

Friday, June 9, 2017

By Mark Carter

Western hunters and elected officials are urging the U.S. Department of Interior to maintain a focus on sagebrush habitat and continue partnering with states as the agency plans a review of sage-grouse conservation practices.

On Thursday, DOI issued a secretarial order initiating the review as it looks at how to keep the bird off the endangered species list. In 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) opted not to list sage grouse as endangered, keeping the bird open to hunters. A review of that decision is scheduled for 2020. 

Sage grouse populations had been in historical decline, but the agency found the sage grouse still "relatively abundant." 

The sage grouse is native to the sagebrush sea of the western United States. Its range currently entails roughly 257,000 acres across the states of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The historical range includes Arizona and New Mexico.

Sage grouse also can be found in small numbers in southwest Canada, where they are protected.

Two years after the bird was kept off the U.S. endangered species list, oil and gas plays and residential development throughout the West have many concerned about encroachment on sagebrush habitat.

On the flip side, some Western governors believe the 2015 plan created too many restrictions on industry and ranching.

The order issued on Thursday establishes a sage-grouse review team made up of officials from FWS, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey coordinating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service.

The review team is charged with evaluating current federal plans to determine if they're complementary to state plans and compatible with administrative orders on energy independence.

It has 60 days from the date of the order -- officially issued June 8 -- to make recommendations to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Zinke faces familiar responses as he weighs different approaches from those who feel the federal government is too heavy-handed and those who feel it's not doing enough to protect the bird.

“When I travel around, there’s a lot of anger of what is perceived, either right or wrong, as heavy-handedness,” he told reporters earlier this week. “The federal government doesn’t listen. There’s a lot of mistrust. My largest and most important task, quite frankly, is to restore trust."

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Many stakeholders -- hunters, conservation groups, sportsmen's groups -- are concerned about the potential impact of any new recommendations on future sage-grouse conservation and on other sagebrush-dependent species such as pronghorn antelope and mule deer.

Some estimates put the number of sage grouse at about half a million birds, down from 16 million a century ago.

The greater sage grouse. (Audubon.org)

Zinke's order also raises the possibility of changing the sage-grouse approach from a habitat-management model to one that includes population objectives for individual states. Also to be considered are captive breeding programs, improved predator-control and monitoring techniques, and curbing West Nile virus.

The specter of de-emphasizing habitat management doesn't sit well with many groups representing hunters and sportsmen.

“Population size and habitat are inextricably linked, and undermining habitat protections while attempting to meet population objectives by other means is not sustainable,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a statement. "We look forward to working with Secretary Zinke and his staff to resolve remaining issues with the plans, and we’re confident that a legitimate review should demonstrate that they were based off the best science, with balance and flexibility built in so that state concerns could be addressed."

In its official response to the order, TRCP said the top priority of conservation and sportsmen’s group leaders is for habitat to remain the primary focus of conservation efforts. 

The Western Governors Association created the Sage Grouse Task Force in 2011 to work with the federal government on conservation issues. Its co-chairs, Republican Gov. Matthew Mead of Wyoming and Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat, recently urged Zinke to maintain the habitat-management model for sage grouse and sagebrush conservation, and to allow states to work with DOI to address any problems with the current approach. 

"We understand that you are considering changing the Department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states," they wrote. "We are concerned that this is not the right decision. Our state agencies have decades of experience managing the species and we are willing to work with you to develop the best approach for managing the species on federal lands...

"The states understand the provisions that need improvement and can help the Department develop ways to target those problematic provisions. Wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time."

Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, said a comprehensive review should document landowner success stories across the West related to sage-grouse conservation, and ensure that conservation-minded landowners are included in the process.

“Sportsmen’s groups have worked extensively on sage-grouse conservation efforts, including those of private landowners,” he said in a statement. “The secretary mentioned there is a lot of anger and mistrust in local communities, but I’m confident that a comprehensive review process will also document the substantial and growing number of landowner success stories across the West, where improvements for sage grouse also benefit livestock."

Sage grouse and sagebrush conservation impacts many stakeholders, hunters chief among them. Hunters have helped contribute more than $130 million to sage-grouse management and conservation since 2000 through state license and gear sales alone, according to TRCP.

For them, the pursuit of sage grouse and other upland birds represents an almost spiritual connection to the land.

Writing for UltimateUpland.com, Brian Koch recalled the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt -- former president, avid hunter and father of American conservationism:

The ability to wander, chase birds and get lost with friends and rowdy running dogs in the same expanse that TR did 120 years ago is pretty amazing. Thankfully not all things have disappeared in the name of progress.

Shooting one of Roosevelt’s birds gives me a glimmer of hope that a legacy that was so hard fought may still survive the hair-brained, misguided ideas of lesser men. I believe I’ll side with the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Roosevelt holding wildlife and wild places in the public trust, until someone more enlightened appears — doubtful that happens in my lifetime.