ENDANGERED SPECIES

FWS may punt on sage grouse decision, leaving issue to Obama admin

Federal wildlife officials may not make a decision on whether to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act until this summer, following a delay in publication of new scientific research about the sagebrush-dependent bird.

Grazing, energy development, wildfires and residential development have taken a heavy toll on the grouse's habitat in recent decades, but there has been strong disagreement about whether the bird's survival is in serious danger. An estimated 100,000 to 500,000 sage grouse are scattered throughout 11 Western states, and it now occupies about half of its original, year-round habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was expected to make a decision on the sage grouse by the end of 2008, but FWS biologist Pat Deibert said the agency would like to wait for the publication of new research about the bird in the journal Studies in Avian Biology. The research, expected to be published this summer, will include the work of more than two dozen scientists who have been studying sage grouse populations and threats to the bird's habitat.

"The feeling is that the publication will have a lot of good information in it, and we'd like to wait for it before making a finding," Deibert said.

Additionally, Deibert said delaying protections for sage grouse was unlikely to affect the bird's long-term survival prospects. "I don't think delaying a decision a few months will do it harm," she said.

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But Kent Holsinger, an attorney who specializes in endangered species and public lands issues in the West, said there is no reason for the agency to delay a decision. Holsinger noted that the bird and its habitat are widespread throughout the West.

"It seems Interior has more than enough information that listing is not warranted already," he said. "I don't know why it would have to delay the decision further."

If FWS officials postpone their recommendation until after the research is published, it could put them in violation of a court order establishing a May 2009 decision on the sage grouse's status. The federal judge's decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the Western Watersheds Project challenging the agency's 2005 decision not to protect the sage grouse under ESA.

Jon Marvel of Western Watersheds Project said FWS should wait to make a decision until it reviews the latest scientific literature. "Our group is interested in including the best available science," he said, adding that it may be possible to extend the deadline for a decision under the court order.

Other environmentalists also said the agency should wait for the new research before proceeding with a decision on the sage grouse.

"I actually think it's quite appropriate to postpone a decision," said Brian Rutledge of Wyoming Audubon. "Any decision made sooner would probably be a bad decision."

"We want a decision based on the best available science," added Megan Mueller, staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems. "We think when the science comes out, it will present a pretty strong case that the bird needs to be listed."

Terry Riley, vice president for policy for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said FWS should have as much information as possible available to it before deciding whether the bird needs protection under ESA. "Once it's listed, once it's put on that candidate list, that changes everything for everybody involved," he said.

A litmus test for the Obama administration

Erik Molvar with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and other environmentalists have been worried the Bush administration would try to push a decision against listing in its final days in office.

"The Bush administration has done everything in its power to speed up the decision process on the sage grouse listing to make sure a decision was made before a new administration took office, presumably to rig the decision to prevent sage grouse protection," Molvar said. "We think it's great news that the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to wait until the science comes out."

Marvel said the sage grouse decision could serve as a litmus test of the Obama administration's commitment to science. Many environmental groups have expressed concern about Obama's nomination of Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) for Interior secretary (see related story), noting that Salazar has strong ties to the agricultural industry and has actively worked against listing species such as prairie dogs and the Colorado cutthroat trout.

"The sage grouse issue is going to be dispositive in finding out whether science-based decision-making will be the primary focus of the Obama administration or if we'll see a return to extractive-use apologists, as we have had under the Bush administration," Marvel said. "If science is followed in the issue of listing the sage grouse by the Fish and Wildlife Service, we think it will be listed."

Implications of a listing

If FWS does list the grouse, ranching, mining, energy development and other activities would be subject to additional scrutiny to protect the bird.

The sage grouse has become something of a poster child for the threats to wildlife posed by oil and gas drilling, since much of its current habitat has been fragmented by the network of roads, pipelines and wells that make up the infrastructure supporting the West's current energy boom.

Breeding grounds called leks form the center of activity for native prairie grouse species, including sage grouse, and provide habitat critical to grouse survival. Research has demonstrated that most of the birds' nesting activity occurs within 3 miles of a lek, and some scientific studies have shown that sage grouse can be affected by activities as far away as 4 miles from their leks.

A recommendation for a threatened or endangered listing for the sage grouse would take an additional year to be finalized. During that time, land management agencies could choose to intensify their conservation efforts, which could make a listing unnecessary, Deibert said.

Several Western states have already undertaken their own conservation efforts in hopes that the bird will not be listed. For example, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) released an executive order last summer that designates core habitat areas for the greater sage grouse, curtails new drilling in these areas and establishes a conservation buffer zone around important breeding areas for the birds (Land Letter, Aug. 7, 2008).

The Bureau of Land Management has pursued a similar strategy in Wyoming, placing new restrictions last year on about 1 million acres in the Powder River Basin to protect sage grouse habitat. The temporary guidelines allow one wellpad per 640 acres, unless the energy companies can prove that more wells will not hurt the birds (Greenwire, Aug. 14, 2008).

However, Rutledge noted that nearly all the land up for lease in the Wyoming BLM's February auction is within the core habitat areas identified by the state. "The problem right now is not the absence or presence of a listing," he said. "It's that what the governor of Wyoming has accepted as appropriate [protections for the bird], BLM has inappropriately continued to ignore."

A study released last year by WildEarth Guardians concluded that less than 5 percent of the sage grouse's habitat on federal lands is protected (Greenwire, Oct. 9, 2008).

Gable is an independent energy and environmental writer in Woodland Park, Colo.

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