Before settlement, there were about 16 million Greater Sage-grouse in the west that inhabited 186 million acres in what are now 11 states. Greater Sage-grouse depend on sagebrush for both food and cover. In the west, relatively few intact sagebrush landscapes remain unfragmented by housing developments, fences, roads, drilling rigs, large scale wildfires, or overgrazing. Not surprisingly, Greater Sage-grouse population numbers are falling sharply. Because so much of their habitat has been impacted, Greater Sage-grouse have declined to as few as 200,000 birds over half their historic range.
After humans, the Greater Sage-grouse could become the most powerful creature in the West. Its impact stems not from the majestic white ruff and gular sacs the males puff up to impress the hens, nor from the intricate courtship dances that they perform on their historic strutting grounds or leks. Rather, grouse power comes from the broad restrictions on ranching, mining, and oil-and-gas-development that might follow were its numbers to drop so low that it is listed as an endangered species.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether or not to list the Greater Sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and that sword of Damocles has prodded federal agencies to take grouse conservation seriously. The BLM is now amending nearly 100 land use management plans to benefit the grouse, and the Forest Service another 21. Each of the 11 states within the historic range of the Sage-grouse is developing a plan to preserve and grow grouse, hoping to demonstrate that recovery is possible without an ESA listing.
A coalition of conservation groups including Sierra Club, American Bird Conservancy, Wild Earth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife developed a National Greater Sage-grouse Conservation Strategy and submitted a Management Alternative to the BLM, USDA Forest Service (USFS), and state planners. The conservation goals of our management alternative are: 1) Increase Greater Sage-grouse populations to a level where they are ecologically viable, locally and regionally secure, and are producing an annual, harvestable surplus and 2) Restore and maintain sagebrush steppe habitat to its ecological potential across the historic range of sage grouse.
We suggest a system of conservation areas including areas of critical environmental concern (BLM), sagebrush conservation areas (USFS), research natural areas (BLM and USFS), national wildlife refuges (USFWS) and other specially designated areas to anchor restoration efforts by conserving the highest quality habitats.
The coalition has also suggested recovery standards and guidelines. Some of which are:
- Generally exclude new rights of way in priority sage-grouse habitat.
- Close priority sage-grouse habitat to gas and oil leasing, and within 4 miles of active leks (breeding grounds).
- Generally do not allow any new surface occupancy on federal leases within priority habitat during any time of the year.
- Apply a seasonal restriction on exploratory drilling in priority habitat, prohibiting surface disturbing activities during nesting and brood-rearing seasons.
- Find all sage-grouse priority habitat as unsuitable for surface coal mining.
- No new leases granted for subsurface coal mines unless all surface disturbances occur outside of priority sage-grouse habitat.
- Abate all wastewater from oil, gas and coal extraction to manage the risk of West Nile Virus.
- Do not site wind energy developments in priority sage grouse habitat, or within 5 miles of active sage-grouse leks.
- Site wind energy at least 4 miles away from the perimeter of sage-grouse winter habitat.
- Within sage-grouse habitat, incorporate measurable sage-grouse habitat objectives and triggers for changed management into all BLM and USFS grazing allotments.
- Establish and maintain sufficiently large areas free of livestock as reference areas.
- Rest at least 25% of each sage-grouse planning area from livestock grazing each year.
- Identify grazing allotments where permanent retirement of grazing privileges would potentially benefit sage-grouse restoration.
- Manage free-roaming wild horse and burro populations at levels demonstrated to achieve and maintain sage-grouse habitat objectives
About half of the Greater Sage-grouse habitat is on private land. Here the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is working with farmers and ranchers to improve grazing practices and increase cover in which nesting grouse hide and to mark fences so they are visible to Sage-grouse. In return, the ranchers are preemptively declared to be in full compliance with the Endangered Species Act, should the grouse be listed. Tim Griffiths, who leads the NRCS’s grouse effort, said: “What began as a fear-based effort has succeeded in marrying range health to what the sage grouse need.”
Sierra Club is helping NRCS mark fences. Watch for opportunities to help with this effort!
Contact: Marion Klaus (firstname.lastname@example.org)