The listing debate
Greater Sage-grouse rely on large areas of intact sagebrush ecosystem for food, cover, breeding, and nesting. And those habitats are increasingly fragmented by development across the West. Wyoming is home to 52 percent of the world’s existing Greater Sage-grouse, as well as populations of many other species that rely on intact sagebrush steppe habitat, including pygmy rabbits, black-footed ferrets, mule deer, pronghorn, and others.
“The Greater Sage-Grouse is often called an icon of the West because the species has become the symbol for conserving sagebrush ecosystems, one of the most difficult environmental challenges in North America,” write Steven Knick and John Connelly in the introduction to a recent, comprehensive, scientific study of Greater Sage-grouse for the wildlife service. (http://sagemap.wr.usgs.gov/monograph.aspx)
“Much of the information presented here and in the recent literature paint a bleak picture for the future of Greater Sage-Grouse,” the introduction concludes. “We hope that through better understanding, increased appreciation, and effective conservation, we might ensure the trajectory of long-term declines of Greater Sage-Grouse populations is not their destiny.”
The first listing petition for Greater Sage-grouse was submitted in 2002. In 2005, the wildlife service found that the bird did not warrant endangered species status. The agency reasoned that while Sage-grouse numbers have long been in decline, the rate of decline has slowed in recent decades. Furthermore, the service wrote, “[A]pproximately 160 million acres of sagebrush, a necessary habitat for sage-grouse, currently exists across the western landscape.”
In 2007, a group called Western Watersheds Project sued the federal service for its decision not to list the Greater Sage-grouse. The Watersheds Project website states that populations of Greater Sage-grouse have declined from historic millions by as much as 93 percent.
The federal District Court in Idaho found the service’s decision not to list the Sage-grouse was flawed, as the service did not adequately consider the best scientific information because it did not involve experts in the final decision-making process.
“Julie MacDonald, a Deputy Assistant Secretary who was neither a scientist nor a sage-grouse expert, had a well-documented history of intervening in the listing process to ensure that the ‘best science’ supported a decision not to list the species,” the court rule. “Her tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating FWS staffers.”
The court ordered the wildlife service to reconsider listing the Greater Sage-grouse as an endangered species and to announce its decision on February 26, 2010. However, wildlife service director Sam Hamilton, who was to make that decision, died while skiing in Colorado on February 20 and the court extended the deadline to March 5.
On Friday, the wildlife service could make one of three decisions: that an endangered species listing for the Greater Sage-grouse is warranted, not warranted, or warranted but precluded. If the agency decides listing is warranted, they will publish a proposed rule that will undergo a year of review before becoming final.
“If the agency decides that listing is not warranted, it’s a pretty good bet that they’ll get sued again,” said Mike Brennan, an attorney for Holland and Hart, LLC, who has worked on endangered species litigation. “If the agency decides that listing is warranted but precluded, it’s also a pretty good bet that they’ll get sued again, and they’ve lost every time that they’ve attempted to make either of those findings. I don’t see anything out there that suggests a different outcome would be likely this time around. And that makes the possibility of a listing a pretty significant one.”
Brian Rutledge, Executive Director of Audubon Wyoming and an instrumental player in Sage-grouse policy in Wyoming, disagrees.
“I don’t think they would be listed right away because there are so many other species awaiting listing,” he said. “My suspicion is they will be found warranted but precluded. … That is just a guess. There are 279—I think—other species on the waiting list ahead of them, and some of those are birds that are in even more critical condition.”