A lack of leks is worrying Shawn Espinosa.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gets ready to re-examine whether the greater sage grouse needs federal protection, Espinosa and other state wildlife biologists across the West are frantically looking for the bird and the traditional mating grounds known as leks where they have lived for centuries – or, increasingly, where they used to live.
“The last 17 years, more than 16 million acres have burned in the Great Basin,” Assistant Interior Secretary Stephen Allred recently told the National Association of Conservation Districts.
Allred said 75 sage grouse leks were destroyed last summer in Idaho near the Nevada line by just one set of fires.
Of the 22 million acres of sage grouse habitat that existed in Nevada in 1999, nearly 3 million acres has burned.
“It has been quite simply amazing the amount of habitat we have lost in just the last two years, particularly in the northeast part of the state,” said Espinosa of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“We are all very concerned at this point,” he said. “The situation looks worse now than it did four years ago.”
That’s bad news for the sage grouse and it also could spell trouble for ranchers and the oil and gas industry, which dodged stiff regulations in January 2005 when the government decided the bird didn’t need to be listed as an endangered species.
Ken Mayer, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said whether the federal government concludes the grouse needs protection is “a huge decision.”
“It will affect everything we do and know (as) a Western state, everything from livestock grazing to mining to development of sage brush habitat, wind energy, transmission lines,” he said.
“I don’t think we have ever been in this position before.”
The chicken-sized bird is found on sage brush plains and high desert from Colorado to California and north to the Canadian border. Its population has been declining for decades and it now occupies about half of its original, year-round habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2005 there were 100,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse.
North Dakota’s sage grouse population is limited to the far southwestern corner of the state. Stan Kohn, an upland game bird biologist with the state Game and Fish Department, said officials just finished a sage grouse survey and will not have an updated population estimate for at least a week. However, he said he expects numbers to be down.
The all-time high sage grouse count in North Dakota was 542 birds, in 1953. The low mark came in 1996, at 111.
“The last several years, it’s been in the 150-200 range,” Kohn said.
There are a number of possible reasons for a drop in sage grouse population in the state, Kohn said, from West Nile virus to habitat loss to bad weather.
Besides the grouse losing its habitat to wildfires and development, reproductive and survival rates are down in states hit hard by drought and invasive plants such as cheat grass, which quickly elbow out sage brush and native grasses after fires. West Nile virus also is taking a toll.
In Nevada, for example, Espinosa said the numbers of chicks per hen hit a historic low of 0.58 last fall compared to a more typical figure of 1.8 to 2.0.
Biologists are quick to remind that grouse populations operate in cycles, but Espinosa said “the highs and lows are getting lower and lower and the overall trend of sage grouse population is going down.”
Environmentalists who have been pushing for federal protection of the bird for more than a decade remain convinced its population is in steady decline on a path to certain extinction.
“I am confident that an honest presentation of data on grouse numbers, as well as an honest assessment of the threats, will show any reasonable person this species must be listed – even emergency listed,” said Katie Fite, director of biodiversity for the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, which sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over its previous decision.
“Unfortunately, in several Western states, efforts seem to be under way to be creative with grouse counting and mask how much numbers are down,” she said. “Populations do sort of cycle, but part of the last upward trend was a result of agencies taking great pains to find and count grouse.”
Biologists are back in the field because a federal judge in Idaho ruled in December that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to use the best science in its previous decision.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise overturned Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2005 decision partly because it was tainted by political pressure from Allred’s predecessor. Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald resigned last May amid questions about alleged interference in dozens of other endangered species decisions.
“Her tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating staffers,” Winmill wrote.
The federal agency has until December to issue a new decision. It has given wildlife agencies in 11 states until June 24 to update information on local populations, the threat they face and the steps being taken to conserve them.
Pat Deibert, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based in Wyoming and the federal coordinator of the new review, said lek counts are up in her state and others report the same in parts of Oregon and Colorado thanks to recent rainy springs and the absence of significant wildfires.
But she said those areas may be the exception.
“I have heard in general that most states are down except for Wyoming, but it is highly variable depending on what the climate is doing in different areas,” Deibert said. “The long-term drought in some areas and the massive fires in Utah, Idaho and Nevada – that is not good.”
San Stiver, a grouse biologist for 25 years now based in Arizona, is heading the effort by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to gather the states’ data.
Overall populations across the West showed a “pretty good decline” from 1965-85, then a “less significant drop” from 1985-95 and “no drop” from 2000-03, Stiver said.
From 2004-06 there appeared to be a trend of increasing populations, “then certainly this last year we’ve seen relatively low productions in some parts of the range,” he said.
In Oregon, populations have declined an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent since 2005, said Christian Hagen, sage grouse coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who said that’s within the normal range of fluctuation.
In Colorado, recent numbers have been “relatively static to up a little bit” said Tony Apa, lead researcher for that state’s wildlife agency.
“We look at long-term trends and generally the last 15 years it has been up some,” Apa said. “Of course, the states don’t want to see the bird listed because the feds take over the jurisdiction and we are not into that, but we will present them with the best information we have.”
Allred said there could be “huge consequences” for the Western United States if action isn’t taken.
“It is extremely important that you work with your states and with other organizations to make sure it is obvious that we have taken and are taking measures to protect sage grouse,” he told the Conservation Districts association.
Voluntary conservation efforts that started as early in 2002 to try to head off a federal listing seemed to drop off after the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not list the grouse.
But not in Wyoming, according to Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming in Casper.
“Everybody is taking into account the severity of it and everyone has really stepped up and wanted to take the bull by the horns,” Sorenson said.
Wyoming has started identifying and mapping areas most critical to the bird. Since last fall, the state also has undertaken nearly two dozen projects to help grouse, including restoring habitat, purchasing easements on ranch lands, improving livestock grazing practices and researching ways to reduce the effects of oil and gas drilling.
“A number of individual companies have done conservation actions as well. Often they move well locations voluntarily to get out of a lek,” Sorenson said.
“We did not want to even consider having this animal listed,” she said.
By Scott Sonner
Associated Press Writer
27 April 2008