The decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) not to list the Greater Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was an adroit dance of politics. The plan to “save’ the sage grouse has no clothes. The government proposed solution to the bird’s decline includes 14 new sage-grouse recovery plans—consolidated from 98 distinct Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) land use plans, that the agency says will “conserve” 35 million acres of federal lands across 10 states.

The new plans adopted by the federal government may slow the bird’s decline, but are not likely to reverse its race towards extinction.  The plans are mostly all show and lack real substance to address the major factors causing the bird’s demise. The most important factors are energy development, habitat fragmentation, and livestock grazing (which is intricately linked to cheatgrass wildfires burning up sage brush habitat).

SAGE GROUSE DECLINE

What is tragic about the sage grouse decline is that we are not talking about a “rare” species. The emblematic bird of the Sagebrush Sea, the sage grouse, once numbered in the millions.

George Bird Grinnell, Editor of Forest and Stream, recounted the abundance of grouse he’d seen on a trip he made in Wyoming in 1886.  “The number of grouse which flew over the camp reminded me of the old time flights of the passenger pigeons that I used to see when I was a boy,” he said. “Before long, the narrow valley…was a moving grey mass.”

I recall reading an account of the first supervisor of the Humboldt National Forest recounting how as a kid living outside of Elko, Nevada, he would ride his horse home from school with a long stick, knocking sage grouse out of the sky. Sometimes, he said, they would go out hunting for a weekend and fill a wagon with dead birds.

Today you would be lucky to see even a flock of grouse in much of its range.

Scientists estimate there are between 200,000 and 500,000 grouse spread across more than a hundred sixty-five million acres in eleven Western states and two Canadian provinces. The bird is already extirpated from half of its former range. Do the math—a half million birds at most spread over 165 million acres does not make it abundant. Worse the bird’s numbers continue to plummet.

REASONS FOR DECLINE

There are a host of factors all combining to cause the sage grouse numbers to fall. These include energy development, power-lines, conversion of sage steppe to crops like wheat, and wildfires that are burning up sagebrush habitat. In some areas, especially in Wyoming on-going and expanded oil and gas development is destroying hundreds of thousands of acre prime sage grouse habitat. The powerful oil and gas industry has spent millions on a campaign to discredit scientists studying the bird, and to lobby Congress to keep the bird off the ESA list.

However, across its range, the major threat to the bird’s existence comes from livestock production.

Yet the FWS doesn’t even mention livestock production as a primary threat. https://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/factsheets/GreaterSageGrouseCanon_FINAL.pdf

Many state wildlife agencies, the FWS, as well as even some environmental groups, fail to connect the dots. They note a proximate cause for the bird’s decline, but fail to note the ultimate reason.

For example, cheatgrass, an exotic annual grass that burns readily, is fueling large wildfires in sagebrush habitat. Cheatgrass dries out sooner than native grasses and thus helps to extend the fire prone season. As an annual, it can readily reseed, and recolonize a burn site. Sagebrush, however, takes decades to recover from a fire.  Fires are natural features of sagebrush ecosystems, but they typically occur spaced at 50-200 year or longer intervals.

But what the anti-listing proponents fail to mention is that the major reason in the establishment and spread of cheatgrass is the loss of biocrusts. These biocrusts live on the surface of the soil between the bunchgrasses and sagebrush, and effectively preclude the effective germination of cheatgrass. Cattle hooves pulverize the biocrusts creaeting an ideal habitat for cheatgrass germination and spread.

Furthermore, cheatgrass gets its common name because ranchers felt the plant “cheated” them by greening up rapidly, but drying quickly providing little good forage for livestock. Cattle thus selectively graze the perennial native grasses, leaving cheatgrass untouched. But the continued cropping of the native grasses leads to the gradual replacement of native plants with more exotic cheatgrass.

Grouse need heavy grass cover while nesting as well as for the chicks once the eggs are hatched. Livestock grazing, by removing grass cover, exposes the grouse to predation.

And grouse chicks spend the first six weeks of life foraging in wetlands and riparian areas for insects and flowers—but livestock is the number one factor in the degradation and loss of riparian habitat across the West—with dire consequences for sage grouse.

Even West Nile Virus, a mosquito borne disease that is killing birds in some parts of the West, is connected to livestock production as the placement of water troughs in many arid parts of the grouse’s range provides perfect habitat for breeding mosquitoes.

Livestock production is more than grazing grass. It includes everything that is required to raise an exotic moisture loving animal in an arid rugged environment. For instance, fences are ubiquitous in cattle country. But sage grouse are poor fliers and a surprising number of birds fly into fences. One study suggests up to 30% of the birds in the study died due to fence collisions.

Fences as well as powerlines serve as lookout posts for avian predators of grouse like ravens, eagles and hawks. Some studies suggest that grouse actually avoid fences, sometimes up to a half mile on either side of a fence line. That results in a tremendous loss of potential habitat.

In many parts of the West, agencies like the BLM are planting exotic plants like crested wheatgrass, a favorite forage plant for cattle, over millions of acres, virtually eliminating sagebrush and native grasses.

Another a factor in the bird’s decline are the hay fields growing forage for cattle that fragment native sage brush habitat in many western valleys. These fields, especially after haying, provide no cover for the vulnerable slow-moving birds which are reluctant to cross such obvious predator traps.

Even a causal review of the multiple ways that livestock production negatively impacts grouse across its entire range makes one wonder why the FWS and state agencies fail to acknowledge it as a primary threat at every step of the bird’s life cycle.

FAILURE TO LIST COULD DOOM THE BIRD

The problem with the failure to list the bird now is that if these proposed plans do not work to reverse the decline of the bird, the government will have no choice but to list the species later. However, at that point, bringing about recovery will be far more difficult. Smaller, more fragmented populations of the bird, combined with the on-going habitat destruction that will be allowed to continue to destroy the sagebrush steppe habitat under current plans, will make any recovery efforts more uncertain and far more expensive.

The goal all along has been to avoid serious restrictions on the West’s extractive industries, in particular, livestock grazing on public lands as well as new energy development. It was not about saving the bird and the many other sagebrush dependent species that call the sagebrush steppe home.

The writing was on the wall in recent years that the FWS would do everything in its power to avoid listing. I am almost certain that the Obama Administration told western politicians that if they made some minimum improvements in habitat to provide political cover, they would get a no listing decision.  Whether this was done overtly or with a wink and nod, I can’t say, but the outcome is the same.

For years now, the administration has been praising the inconsequential efforts of western states to avoid the listing. Yes some new regulations and plans “may” help the sage grouse slightly around the margins, but nowhere were there serious challenges or efforts to reform or eliminate the main factors in sage grouse decline.

PRAISE FOR THE BIRDS DEMISE FROM CONSERVATION GROUPS

What was even more disappointing about the recent decision is how many so-called conservation groups fell all over themselves praising the decision. The National Audubon Society, for instance, was ecstatic the bird was not listed. Responding to the decision not to list the bird, Brian Rutlege said: “This is exactly what Audubon has been working toward for 10 years,”

National Wildlife Federation President Colin O Mara gushed over the decision not to list the bird. “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd—and today’s decision will help rebuild greater sage grouse populations and conserve sagebrush habitat that supports more than 300 species, including pronghorn, mule deer, and elk.  This decision illustrates what the Endangered Species Act is supposed to be all about: galvanizing collaborative efforts to save wildlife species before they’re on the brink of extinction,”

The PEW Charitable Foundation was positively rapturous claiming that the “western way of life” was now protected. What about the bird?

PEW went on to say the “historic plans that responsibly balance conservation with energy development on millions of acres of public lands across 10 Western states.”

Whenever I hear the word “responsibility balanced” I know that is code for failing to do real conservation.

DECISION LIKELY ILLEGAL

Lost in all the back-slapping and congratulatory praise for the FWS decree not to list is the fact that the decision is likely illegal. The ESA does not permit a listing decision to be based on what “may” be the situation for a species in the future, but rather on the status of the species at the time of the listing.

And the status of the sage grouse is anything but good. A recent study found that the bird’s numbers had. decreased by 56 percent between 2007 and 2013,  Although there was a slight uptick in populations that supposedly occurred last year, one must keep in mind that there is much greater effort being made to find every last bird. So whether the slight increase is real or merely a result of greater search effort remains to be seen.

The government’s response has been to throw money at the problem. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent trying to come up with ways to avoid listing the bird, but little changes on the ground have occurred.

What we do know is that many of the factors contributing to the bird’s decline have not changed significantly and under the new plans even if they are fully implemented (unlikely) will not be sufficient to prevent the continued slide of sage grouse towards extinction.

For example, livestock grazing is one of the major factors driving the bird to extinction and almost gets a free pass to continue unabated with minor adjustments around the fringes.

Existing oil and gas development gets a pass as well with only minor restriction For instance, though research shows that a 4 mile buffer around sage grouse mating grounds is recommended, the government plans only require a 0.6 mile buffer.

New power lines must consider the impact on the grouse, however, they are not obligated to not build them. In the end nothing is completely prohibited, even in the best sage grouse habitat.

EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES

In contrast to the praise and accolades coming from some so-called environmental organizations like the National Audubon Society and PEW Foundation, some environmental groups expressed real dismay over the sham protections promoted by the government. They seem willing to suggest the Emperor has no clothes.

Travis Bruner of Western Watersheds Project said in one news article: “You can sum up all of the plans to protect sage grouse that have occurred over the last year and a half as ‘planning to plan,’ ”

Wild Earth Guardian’s Erik Molvar, a sage grouse expert, said of the decision: “The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems. The government’s proposed plans fall far short of ensuring this iconic, imperiled bird is protected from the serious threats posed by fossil fuel extraction, grazing and other types of development.”

Randi Spivik of the Center for Biodiversity sums up the situation nicely.  “While there are some important improvements for sage grouse in the new federal land-management plans, they still ultimately fall short of what’s needed to ensure these birds’ long-term survival.

Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife also criticized the government’s decision saying the proposed government plans “failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat.”

STRATEGY IS A WIN FOR THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

One can expect at least some of the few remaining real conservation groups to appeal or file suit over this decisions. But in political terms, the Obama administration has won. They have successfully put off and delayed any real consequences for extractive industries whose businesses will more or less go on unhindered as before. The decision not to list, also deflate the efforts of some western Republicans seeking to totally eliminate or at least make ineffective, the Endangered Species Act.

What this decision does for the time being is kicks the can down the road for the next administration to deal with. I seriously doubt that the proposals in the agency plans will be fully implemented, monitored and enforced.

While I am not surprised that the administration has sought to defuse the sage grouse controversy, I am dismayed by the celebratory language from some of the major national environmental organizations.

I will hold all the so-called environmental groups culpable in the demise of this iconic bird. What is tragic to me is that these groups who are a hindrance to good conservation policies aren’t the ones going extinct.

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

16 Responses to SAGE GROUSE POLITICS: THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES

  1. avatar Professor Sweat says:

    “The National Audubon Society, for instance, was ecstatic the bird was not listed. Responding to the decision not to list the bird, Brian Rutlege said: “This is exactly what Audubon has been working toward for 10 years,””

    I occasionally volunteer with one of their biologists for wildlife surveys and he lamented to me that the NAS has been moving away from their hard science approach in recent years. The primary focus is now on outreach and collaboration. Nothing wrong with that, but we’ve seen before the direction great NGO’s can go when policy shifts away from science. He doesn’t expect to be working for them for much longer.

  2. avatar Yvette says:

    This decision is sickening even though I’m a bit of a pessimist and did not believe the Sage Grouse would be listed. I took notice, but did not study, the approach that was used for the Lesser Prairie Chicken and it was a table dance for the Oil and Gas Industry.

    I hope the fight isn’t over for the Sage Grouse.

    As for the NGOs, especially the larger ones; they have and still do some good, but I think the many of the larger ones are primarily focused on keeping themselves funded. I will start paying much closer attention to which non-profits get the most work done.

    • avatar Larry K says:

      Yvette said,”I will start paying much closer attention to which non-profits get the most work done.”

      ans.= WWP/Advocates for the West

  3. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    That seems to be the big thing of this Administration, ‘collaboration’. Whether or not either side intends to make good on their promises, or come to the table sincerely, doesn’t seem to matter. It’s all about people and their needs, and fostering agreements and collaboration. It’s what I believe the President’s claim to fame is/was before he took office. They really don’t seem to get it, and Arctic drilling certainly speaks to that. Sally Jewell has only changed the tone of her rhetoric from people only to the landscape with this decision.

    Once they are gone from office, perhaps things can get back on track. It’s dismaying to see Audubon and others put political support before the welfare of birds and wildlife. I hate that again, nothing obligates industry to make any changes or not to continue on as usual, and I hate that a measly .6 mile buffer around the leks.

    Can’t they spare even a full mile buffer, for God’s sakes? And still come complain and look for ways around it, or even ring up their owned politicians to avoid it. This is not a win and nobody should be celebrating, it’s just more disappointing propaganda. I’m disappointed that this Administration never seems to push for more.

    I don’t like this decision at all, but I’m trying to find a silver lining.

    • avatar Ida Lupines says:

      A thousand-yard buffer zone is really ridiculously small. Can’t they even spare that much????

      I really don’t want the sage grouse to go the way of the passenger pigeon for ugly modern development. Sometimes I really rue the day Euro-americans ever darkened the door to this continent!

      I really hope the Pope throws a little holy water around Jon Tester before he meets with him in Congress!

  4. avatar don smith says:

    “Big Oil was desperate to keep the sage grouse off the endangered-specis list. Here’s why.

    http://www.thenation.com/article/did-the-fish-and-wildlife-service-just-doom-this-bird-to-extinction/

  5. avatar Dominique says:

    This is truly sad news. Recently, in my earth science class, a wildlife biologist speaker told us of the massive amount of money spent over a 10 year period for “plans” to re-create the environment for this species, the sage grouse and similar species that we had callously destroyed in the past. She pointed out that you can never re-create the environment to what it had been originally, in it’s pristine state, and never completely undo the destruction done. The National Wildlife Federation, as our own governmental Wildlife agencies are of those wildlife groups that has the agenda only to “conserve” wildlife enough to hunt it, just like “hunters” have falsely labelled themselves as “conservationists”. Unfortunately the Obama administration has kicked the can to the next administration, not wanting to confront the AG and Oil Industry with the insane damage they are causing our environment and wildlife. Funny how Obama is cooperating with the Pope to urge action for Global Warming, when I think that both the Pope and Obama do not comprehend to connect the dots, esp since our media is completely quiet with the facts, that methane from the cows we so abhorrently slaughter is the largest contributor to Global Warming. This fact is simply ignored due to no one is willing to take on Big AG, No One.

  6. avatar Joanne Favazza says:

    As usual, the US Fish and Wildlife Service continues to ensure that no endangered or threatened species will ever stand in the way of industrial interests. Corporate profits should NEVER take precedent over life:

  7. avatar Janet Torline says:

    This is YET ANOTHER faux “conservation” political action. Judging by those that commented, we know that. So??? What to do? How do we create a political will (because we all know this is and will continue to be for the foreseeable future a politically, not environmentally, based decision making process)to make a shift in collective, pro-active thinking and action?. Is there an over-arching strategy /”banner” to rally behind? Belly aching about the current and on-going trend to allow the extraction industry to put economic values above all else (this is called Capitalism) is not a survivable model for the either the Greater Sage Grouse or humanity as a whole. Besides lending our voices to this depressing choir’s song of lament, what can we do? It is past time to do something. All suggestions, action item ideas welcome.

    • avatar Montana Green says:

      The only thing we can do is refuse to donate to the phony psuedo-environmental groups like Audubon, Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, The Wilderness Society, and a host of other “collaborators” who are in it for the $$ from foundations that don’t want to fund the folks who really fight for the future.

      Those would be Western Watersheds, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council, and more, primarily small but dedicated organizations not afraid to stand up for the truth, the science, and the law. If it means going to court to win, so be it. Since when is it a crime to use the third branch of government when the executive and legislative fail? Yet, the major foundations, like PEW are funding organizations that are more than happy to “cut the baby in half” through collaboration — over and over and over again.

      So, don’t fall for the glossy baloney Gang Green sends out on such a regular basis begging for money and lauding their “work.” Starve them, cancel your membership if you have it, and let them know you’ve had it with their collaboration that ignores real science in favor of going along to get along.

  8. avatar Larry K says:

    I’m certainly in your boat. In 5 years it will be decided to plan to revisit the plan and take several years to decide how to revisit the plan and at 10 years plan to give the 50 birds left another 5 years to see if they can rebound. Wondering if the Pope can be drafted for Sec/Interior while he’s here. (Wasn’t Sally an oil woman before being Sec/cows? (How rude of me)

  9. avatar LindaH says:

    Excellent article and it tells it like it is. I can’t believe FWS never mentioned livestock. Several studies have proven that 40% of adult sage grouse are killed every year because of fences. These are low-flying birds (a few feet off the ground) and livestock fences are lethal as a result.How tragic for a species like this that used to fill the skies with dark clouds when they flew to be so diminished. There is no doubt that ranching and energy industries will be the demise of them.

  10. avatar Garry Rogers says:

    The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U. S. Forest Service manage lands chiefly to benefit private financial interests. This becomes very clear whenever protecting an endangered species such as the Sage Grouse would reduce profits by the timber, livestock, and other industries that harvest the public land for private profits. In those cases, adequate protection is not provided. A century of management of the public lands for special interests has robbed the nation of its foundation of natural resources. Because of human nature, a government ruled by special interests rather than reason will invariably fail to conserve its resources.

  11. avatar Kyle Gardner says:

    Excellent per usual George. The continuing overgrazing by the beef industry, of late combined with no-holds-barred energy and motorized development is a total fiasco.

    Always good to look askance at all parties involved, especially those at the root of the problem and those that have become co-opted. Yet the underlying driver of resource extraction from the public domain has to be addressed. Seeing Gov. Hick lauding the state-volunteer-based “solution” says it all! “Thou shalt not stand in the way or profit-oriented resource extraction where few benefit and everything else suffers.”

    Solutions? Habitat preservation: get the cattle out, preserve roadless and near roadless areas, restore riparian areas. Continuation of the current folly is leading to a likely result.

  12. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    The plaintiffs are challenging the legality of the “draconian land use prohibitions and restrictions in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s and U.S. Forest Service’s Nevada Land Management Plans for Greater Sage Grouse.

    They coulda had an ESA listing.

    http://elkodaily.com/mining/sage-grouse-injunction-hearing-set/article_fa0dab70-9e33-56ad-af41-c5bd4604d26e.html

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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