Wyoming's greater sage grouse population declined over the past several years, a new state survey shows, adding to fears that the Fish and Wildlife Service will place federal grouse protection on a collision course with the state's energy industry.
FWS officials have already warned that the expansion of the state's wind-power footprint into designated "core sage-grouse areas" could trigger an Endangered Species Act listing for the chicken-like bird, which has been declining over much of the last century due to a variety of threats, including habitat destruction caused by grazing, mining and energy development.
The new report is not a full indictment of wind power, however, noting that persistent drought and a robust coalbed methane industry are also adversely affecting sage grouse, with numbers of male birds in breeding areas, called leks, significantly lower near methane fields than in areas farther removed from the gas fields.
Overall, male grouse populations declined from an average of 39 birds per lek in 2006 to 30 birds per lek in 2008, according to the survey. And the authors note that "early indications suggest another decline in 2009."
Yet despite those findings, state officials viewed the report with optimism, noting that the average number of male grouse in leks was more than double what surveys showed in the mid-1990s, when a combination of drought, damaging land-use practices and oil and gas development drove the bird to the brink of extinction.
"That's good news," said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the lead author of the report. "The core habitat is still there, and as long as it's still there ... and it's being managed properly, we're OK."
It remains unclear, however, how the latest numbers will ultimately be interpreted by federal regulators, who face a Feb. 26 deadline to determine whether the greater sage grouse warrants federal protection.
Such a designation would force the state to adopt broad conservation measures that could cripple the state's expanding wind power industry. Already, some firms are backing away from plans to build turbines in the state, citing regulatory uncertainty about sage grouse. An ESA listing could also interfere with conventional energy development in the state and place new restrictions on livestock grazing and other agricultural activities.
The survey counted only male sage grouse because males are more mobile, moving into open areas to forage for food, while females generally stay hidden behind the sagebrush they use for shelter, making them difficult to count.
While the numbers are low, they are higher than survey results showed in 2002 and 2003, when average male populations were about 20 per lek, according to state data.
"I can't say we're totally alarmed by a two- or three-year downward trend," said Mark Winland, a board member of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which does not currently favor a federal ESA listing for the bird. "But," Winland added, "if trends continue trending downhill, we might have to rethink that position."
Pat Deibert, FWS's lead biologist for sage grouse, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., agreed that year-to-year population variations are not necessarily cause for alarm, and that trends of five years or longer are a better indication of the health of the species.
"The numbers are not encouraging, but I'm not ready to scream that we have to list the bird right now because of this one factor only," she said.
Deibert said she is waiting for a statistical trend analysis of sage grouse populations based on the state's raw data that should be completed by next month. In addition to providing a much better picture of how state conservation efforts are working, the analysis will also allow FWS to forecast future population trends.
But given the looming deadline for a listing decision, the new numbers could push the agency closer to an endangerment finding. "We've got some evidence that suggests [the population of] these birds is cyclical," she said. "If that's what's going on here, I would expect a further decline. It's just a matter of how far that decline goes ... and can [the bird] recover. That's what concerns me."
The stakes are particularly high for Wyoming, which is trying to balance the needs of sage grouse against a burgeoning energy sector for both renewables like wind power and conventional fuels like coal, oil and gas.
And with 54 percent of the world's sage grouse within its borders, Wyoming has little choice but to place grouse conservation at the center of its policy agenda. Under an executive order signed last year by Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), state regulators mapped out roughly 14 million acres of the most sensitive sage-grouse habitat and set about steering development away from the so-called "core areas."
FWS officials have told state leaders that successful preservation of the core areas would provide the best chance of avoiding an endangered listing.
But such warnings have not dissuaded the wind power industry, which has focused on the state's south-central region, where sage grouse populations are highest, because the winds are strong and the region is closer to population centers like Las Vegas, where energy demand is growing fast.
As the debate has intensified, some industry officials have suggested that sage grouse conservation measures -- not only in Wyoming but also Idaho and other Western states -- could derail the Obama administration's agenda to significantly expand the use of renewable resources.
In the letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last month, the leaders of three major trade groups -- the American Wind Energy Association, Interwest Energy Alliance and Renewable Northwest Project -- wrote that rendering the "rich wind energy resources" of Wyoming's core sage grouse areas off-limits to wind power investors "would ban the development of 10,000 megawatts of the highest-quality clean wind resources in Wyoming and in the nation" and would result in the loss of more than $20 billion in capital investment (Land Letter, Aug. 6).
And last month, Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy announced that it would suspend construction of a 300-megawatt-capacity wind farm that would have occupied one of dozens of state-designated "sage-grouse core areas" deemed essential to protecting the imperiled bird.
"These birds need large areas of space, and it's important we protect them," said Deibert, the FWS biologist. "If we can do that, we can pull this bird through."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.