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Mar 082010

From Green Right Now Reports

New scientific findings on the Greater Sage-Grouse are a  “wake-up call” about the bird’s dwindling numbers and its vanishing sagebrush habitat, reports the National Wildlife Federation.

Greater-Sage Grouse (Photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

Greater-Sage Grouse (Photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

Last week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), announced that the Greater Sage-Grouse will have to wait in line for Endangered Species Act protection behind higher-priority species. The agency deemed the bird’s status to be  “warranted but precluded,” a designation that means the bird qualifies for Endangered Species Act protection (it is “warranted”) but it will not be acted upon immediately.
Federal land managers will continue to treat the sage-grouse as a “sensitive species” and monitor its numbers and health throughout its range in 11 Western states.

Most populations of Greater Sage-Grouse have been declining for years due to pressure from energy development, grazing, farming, invasive species, fires, herbicides and more recently the West Nile virus. A recent analysis found that 20 of 27 sage-grouse populations have declined since 1995.

The USFWS did not hide its reasons for holding back on full protection for the sage grouse, citing the need to not interfere with energy development. If the grouse had ESA protection status, its habitat could not be degraded, by oil drilling for instance, without a full review of impacts on the bird.

“We must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival, while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

Gas and oil companies can help find a balance, according to a spokesman for EnCana Oil, who said that company is taking measures to mitigate development effects on the bird.

“We proactively take steps to protect wildlife, both in terms of the Best Management Practices we employ and by engaging third party experts to better understand, address and minimize impacts to wildlife,” said Byron Gale, vice president of environment, health and safety for EnCana Oil and Gas (USA).

Gale said the company uses the latest research to reduce the impacts of drilling and has designated $21.5 million to the Wyoming Wildlife and Nature Resource Trusts to protect wildlife and natural resources. EnCana prides itself on all that it does for wildlife, he said.

Still, environmentalists see the grouse’s dwindling population as a bad portent for Western landscapes, where sagebrush habitat protects many species, such as  pronghorn antelope and mule deer.

“Unfortunately, sagebrush is the most overlooked and under-appreciated Western landscape,” said Kate Zimmerman, senior policy analyst for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado. “If we don’t pay attention to what science is telling us, sage-grouse and other sagebrush species — even pronghorn antelope — could end up in deeper trouble. Losing this unique habitat would also be devastating for the many people who enjoy outdoor recreation or rely on tourism in sagebrush country.”

Although the USFWS science-based ruling was encouraging because it recognizes the sage-grouse’s plight, it doesn’t fully address how the birds will be supported to prevent continuing declines, said Ben Deeble, sagebrush habitat expert with the National Wildlife Federation in Montana.

“A business-as-usual approach isn’t going to conserve the sage-grouse or its sagebrush habitat,” Deeble said. “Now that the federal government acknowledges the decline of sage-grouse, we need to ensure that its land-management agencies reconcile their energy-development practices with the latest wildlife science. And we need strategies to cope with the impacts of drought, fires and invasive species brought on by climate change.”

Deeble hopes that state and federal officials, and landowners, will collaborate to solve this problem.

“A few governors have already taken steps to protect sage-grouse in their states, and we need to build on that momentum,” Deeble said. “Now we need partnerships on both public and private lands to properly manage and enhance the best remaining habitats.”

After giving the public 90 days to comment on its proposal, the USFWS is expected to publish a final finding within a year.