sage grouse

Wyoming PBS will air a program tonight that will examine the challenges facing the sage grouse that may land the bird on the endangered species act this year. 

Called The Sagebrush Sea, the program will take a close look at why sage grouse numbers are in decline. Producer Marc Dantzler says he has been impressed by efforts made by the state of Wyoming to improve conditions for the sage grouse, but he says the bird’s condition in other states could cause it to be listed.

Some landowners are expressing concern about how expanded sage grouse protections could affect their private property rights. At a state sage grouse meeting last week in Douglas, two ranchers requested that their property be removed from the grouse’s current protected areas or be left out of proposed additions.

Last week, Utah representative Rob Bishop added a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act that would delay the listing of the greater sage grouse as an endangered species. The bill says listing the bird could endanger the country by placing restrictions  on how military property can be used. 

Jeannie Stafford/USFWS

Do you think the governor should expand the protected habitat of sage grouse in his core area strategy, which is up for review this year?

For more information, see the Wyoming Public Radio story, Deadline Looms For Governor's Sage Grouse Plan.

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A report commissioned by Pew Charitable Trusts predicts that sage grouse will be extinct in 100 years and could be gone from the Powder River Basin in 30 years, if their decline continues at its current rate. The Garton report, as it’s known, was released last week in the “Environment and Energy Daily,” an online magazine. Wyoming Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen says he has concerns with the study--not the method or the analysis, but its conclusion that conservation efforts aren’t working.

Jeannie Stafford/USFWS & US Energy Dept

A chicken-sized game bird native to western sagebrush has become the subject of the biggest conservation project in U.S. history.

Efforts to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list stretch across 11 states from North Dakota to California. It is a complex balancing act between saving critical ecosystems while at the same time protecting the region’s key industries.

Department Of Wildlife

It’s been five years since Governor Matt Mead signed an executive order giving special protections to the state’s greater sage grouse populations. Now that order says it’s time to re-evaluate the plan and make sure it’s actually doing its job. The goal is to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife not to list the grouse as an endangered species come September 30.

At a public meeting this week in Buffalo, the state’s sage grouse team heard ideas for increasing the Powder River Basin grouse populations. A new Pew Charitable Trust report shows that the area’s sage grouse are close to extinction with a 98 percent chance that in 30 years there will be less than 50 birds left there. Wildlife biologist Erik Molvar with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians says the coalbed methane industry played a role in the decline.

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After lengthy discussions, Jonah Energy has agreed to hold off on plans to drill some 3500 gas wells near Pinedale until an environmental impact statement is complete.

Governor Mead’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team could not reach a consensus on Tuesday on whether to include the area—known as the NPL or Normally Pressurized Lance—as protected habitat. Wyoming Game and Fish sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen says, the team didn't agree on whether or not to adopt the area into the grouse's core area habitat.

The Western Governor’s Association has released a special report outlining numerous programs Wyoming and other western states have adopted to stop the rapid decline of the greater sage grouse. But Wildlife Biologist Erik Molvar with WildEarth Guardians says sage grouse numbers have been plummeting and it’s going to take more than local, voluntary efforts to turn things around.

“It’s going to require range-wide commitments to science-based protections that are mandatory.”

The clock is ticking for Governor Mead and his sage grouse team. They have a September deadline to re-evaluate their so-called Core Area Strategy that would slow the bird’s declining population so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife doesn’t list it as an endangered species.

Wyoming is now home to the largest conservation bank in the country. The conservation bank program allows private landowners to permanently protect a critical habitat area in exchange for credits that can be sold to developers who plan to disturb critical habitat elsewhere.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has fired back at a federal provision banning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from placing the sage grouse on the endangered species list for one year. The provision was a rider in the omnibus spending bill, passed last month.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department says that Sage grouse chick production was unusually high this year.

The agency has discovered that grouse hens had more chicks this year than usual, over two per hen.  That’s over double from last year.

Chief Game Warden Brian Nesnik says hunters submit wings of grouse they harvest to the department for analysis.  That’s how they determine what is happening with the bird.

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Wednesday is the deadline for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether or not to list the Gunnison Sage Grouse, a sub-species that’s struggling in Colorado and Utah, under the Endangered Species Act.

Melodie Edwards

Last week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was in Pinedale, taking part in a ceremony to sign up Wyoming ranchers to help protect sage grouse. These conservation agreements are called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances or CCAA’s. They’re supposed to protect the birds on private lands, but as Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards reports, some wildlife advocates question whether the program really has the teeth to make a difference.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, praised sage grouse conservation efforts in Wyoming during a tour of a ranch outside of Pinedale on Wednesday. The Bousman Ranch is one of nine in Wyoming that have agreed to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service on sage grouse conservation. During the tour Secretary Jewell learned about the ranch’s new strategies for protecting the grouse, such as converting windmill water tanks to solar to eliminate perches for the grouse’s predators like hawks and ravens.

Next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will decide whether or not to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species, and a new scorecard released by a coalition of wildlife advocacy groups says the Bureau of Land Management’s new Lander Resource Plan has failed to do enough to keep the bird off that list.

Policy Advisor Steven Holmer is with the American Bird Conservancy, one of six groups behind the new scorecard. He says a team of national scientists was tasked with setting standards for the best way to protect the grouse.

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The energy industry lobbying organization Western Energy Alliance has begun an ad campaign to highlight the dangers of listing the greater sage grouse as an endangered species. 

The campaign includes radio and online advertisements that focus on the potential impacts that federal management of the sage grouse presents to Wyoming industry, agriculture, and tourism.

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Wyoming's top 131 most vulnerable species are identified in a new study put together by the Nature Conservancy, Wyoming Game and Fish and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. Senior Zoologist Doug Keinath with the Diversity Database says the goal of the study was not to place blame, but instead to give the state a heads up before certain species require emergency rescue measures, the way the greater sage grouse has. 

He says the state should keep an especially close eye on amphibians.

The Western Energy Alliance released a report this week on sage grouse protection measures used by the oil and gas industry. Though the report claims that the industry is doing enough to protect grouse, a local conservationist disagrees.

Erik Molvar is a biologist and campaign director with WildEarth Guardians. He says that the Bureau of Land Management’s own research disputes the WEA findings.

With winds and low precipitation causing fire danger to escalate in rangelands around the state, the Bureau of Land Management is keeping a close eye on sage grouse habitat. Senior Resource Advisor Pam Murdock says they’re working hard to control the fires.

"I know that there are a few going on currently," she says. "We have one, I was just informed of yesterday, that did get ignited over the weekend that was in sage grouse core area up in the Bighorn Basin."

She says it isn't easy juggling conflicting priorities. 

Cynthia Lummis

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations has approved a budget for the Interior and Environment for 2015, and Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis says, if passed into law, the bill would have a huge impact on Western states like Wyoming. 

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The clock is ticking about whether to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species.  Such a listing could all but shut down mineral development in the bird’s habitat.  The state has already tackled sage grouse protections.  Now it’s the federal government’s turn.  It’s been 30 years since the Lander Resource Management Plan was revised.  And so the Bureau of Land Management took the opportunity to put more protections in place for the grouse while they were at it. 

The Lander Resource Management Plan is hundreds of pages and covers a lot of ground. 

Wikipedia

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a new plan for land use in the Wind River Basin today/Thursday, which supporters say balances the needs of industry, conservation, and recreation.

The new Resource Management Plan is the result of a cooperative process involving federal, state, and local agencies as well as land owners and recreation enthusiasts.

Wyoming representative for The Wilderness Society, Dan Smitherman, says that the plan’s release does not mean that the conversation about how best to use these lands is over.

A 5000-well oil and gas project proposed for the Powder River Basin is drawing sharp criticism from a wildlife advocacy group.  Erik Molvar with WildEarth Guardians says the drilling would take place right in the middle of critical sage grouse habitat.

“Well, the 5000 wells are projected in an area of over a million acres to the north of Douglas, stretching all the way up in the Thunder Basin National Grassland and including several core areas that have been proposed priority habitat for sage grouse,” Molvar says.

Sage grouse in Wyoming could get new protections, if a Bureau of Land Management plan is adopted.

The agency is proposing to cap the amount of disturbance that can happen on public land where the bird lives, and to impose other rules designed to protect sage grouse habitat.

The BLM’s Lisa Solberg Schwab says part of their plan involves adopting the core area strategy that Wyoming has already established.

Willow Belden

When energy development happens on public lands, companies have to reclaim the land. That means restoring the landscape after it’s been disturbed. But exactly what’s required varies from one part of the state to another. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports that agencies are making those rules more consistent, in hopes of helping keep sage grouse off the endangered species list.

The federal government released a new plan for managing sage grouse habitat in Wyoming on Friday. The Bureau of Land Management says the plan will allow for consistent policies across federal and state lands, while protecting the bird from an endangered species listing.

A new report questions the assumption that sage grouse dislike tall things.

It’s often assumed that the birds avoid tall structures, such as electrical poles or wind turbines, because they fear that predators could perch on top. But report co-author Karl Kosciuch says that’s not necessarily true. His team reviewed the existing scientific literature about how the birds respond to development, and they found no evidence one way or the other.

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