Gov. Matt Mead wears a sage grouse pin as he walks with former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at Trappers Point near Çora. Wyoming's conservation efforts helped keep the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could have curtailed activities in sagebrush country. Mead and others would like to see the act changed. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Natural and human factors make it unlikely a proposed federal network of greater sage grouse conservation habitat will stay intact, the government’s own scientists say.

Scientists also question whether the priority-area conservation plans — known in Wyoming as the core-area strategy — will save small, scattered populations.

The “priority,” or “core-area” framework, is the lynchpin in U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service plans to save the dwindling species. But the plans’ framework is “a grand experiment” that carries no guarantees for saving the species, authors of a new study say.

“Numerous factors, both natural and anthropogenic, make it unlikely that the current network of priority areas can be sustained,” the 42-page research paper published last week says. The strategy could isolate pockets of birds leading to “loss of sage-grouse within these regions of the network.”

Penned by the U.S Geological Survey, the paper was funded by it and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both arms of the Department of the Interior. Fish and Wildlife, through the Endangered Species Act, is responsible for the conservation of species. It judges whether plans — like those proposed by the Forest Service and BLM — will work. But instead of being a guarantee, the priority or core-area strategy is only a “grand experiment,” the authors say.

Fish and Wildlife must decide by Sept. 30 whether the greater sage grouse should remain a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection. Listing the grouse as threatened or endangered could restrict land use across the West’s sagebrush sea with corresponding economic impacts. Regardless of that decision, the underlying federal conservation plans would still be implemented.

Core-area strategy under the microscope

The paper analyzes the core-area strategy that Wyoming adopted in 2008 and which federal agencies have embraced. In Wyoming, federal plans propose 8.3 million acres of priority habitat, another 8.65 million acres as less-protected general habitat.

 Priority areas are those “having the highest value to maintaining sustainable [greater sage grouse] populations.” In them, the goal is to minimize new surface disturbance, improve habitat and reduce the threat of fire. But the conservation effort will take more than that, said Steven Knick, one of the authors.

“Given the amount of change we are seeing — the fires in the West — it’s just unlikely over the long term that the current configuration [of priority habitat] will remain that way,” he said. Wildfires that destroy sagebrush can render priority habitat unusable by the birds.  “That boundary will be readjusted.There likely will be areas added as we lose parts, pieces or all of the current network as defined. We’re at the very beginning of this kind of strategy of priority areas, in that it’s going to take monitoring and time to say how well this works.

“This design doesn’t end it all,” Knick said. “It’s rather just part of the process we’re attempting to learn from and, hopefully, we can understand a little bit more about sage-grouse land use and what it takes to conserve them.”

All grouse eggs in one basket?

The paper Range-wide network of priority areas for conserving greater sage-grouse — A design for conserving connected distributions or isolating individual zoos? warns of a potential deep problem with the priority, or core-area, strategy. 

Using “centrality metrics from social network theory,” researchers illustrated how the sage grouse plans might function. They identified 118 priority areas ranging in size from 272 acres to 20.5 million acres. They calculated “centrality scores” for each.

A centrality score is “an index that’s based on the number of connections you have with neighbors,” Knick said. If 80 percent of connections go through one person, for example, “that one person is very important.”

In the case of grouse habitat, only 20 of the 188 priority areas — about 10 percent — account for 80 percent of the connections. “All your eggs may be in one basket with these large priority areas,” he said. In conservation biology, such concentration raises the specter that a single event or catastrophe — a wildfire, heavy predation, or disease outbreak —  could upset a population.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Gov. Matt Mead talk at Trappers Point near Çora. Jewell's department will soon decide whether Forest Service, BLM and Wyoming greater sage grouse conservation plans are good enough to keep the bird from having to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
This map shows the network of greater sage grouse priority habitat areas studied in a research paper that raises questions about the effectiveness of federal and state conservation plans. USGS scientists say some populations may become isolated if steps aren’t taken to keep corridors to other groups intact. (USGS)

There’s another danger. “Many of the areas themselves are too small to support a viable population,” Knick said. “If something disrupts that connection [to other grouse habitats], then you effectively isolate that priority area.

“If they put all their conservation into strictly the priority areas without ensuring some kind of functional connection, there’s a risk you’ll see isolation of some populations,” Knick said. Isolated populations, especially small ones, are usually in greater danger of extinction than connected ones. “I think connectivity is important,” Knick said.

Wyoming has designated connectivity areas, inside the state as well as to its borders. But the idea is not a tenet in the sage grouse conservation thrust, Knick said. “I don’t know that anyone has specifically said ‘Here’s a pathway that we need to focus on.’”

Even defining connectivity is dodgy. There’s genetic connectivity, for example. A grouse flying from one area to another and mating there every 10 years might provide that.

There’s also seasonal, migratory connectivity. And there needs to be a connection between a small area and larger ones that provide overflow birds to keep the smaller area populated.

“You need to be careful in defining what connectivity you’re talking about,” Knick said. Plus, scientists still don’t know everything about how and why sage grouse move.

“We don’t know how a sage grouse perceives its landscape,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what sage grouse are willing to cross.”

Plan supporter questions research

The research paper may not recognize all conservation efforts, an advocate for the BLM, Forest Service and Wyoming plans said.

“I thought it missed a couple things,” said Brian Rutledge, vice president and executive director of Audubon Rockies. “The study seems to assume there won’t be birds anywhere but in their core habitat. That’s not what we’re seeing and that’s not the intent. These birds are capable of [flying] greater distances than people think — 40 to 50 miles to nest site from lek.

“There are still protections in non-core to allow for genetic drift,” he said. There also are grouse corridors across state lines. “I don’t know that those were counted for in their study.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe addresses a gathering at Trappers Point while celebrating greater sage grouse conservation achievements in 2014. Ashe's agency is responsible for deciding whether the grouse still merits protection under the Endangered Species Act. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe addresses a gathering at Trappers Point while celebrating greater sage grouse conservation achievements in 2014. Ashe’s agency is responsible for deciding whether the grouse still merits protection under the Endangered Species Act. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The paper reveals flaws in the conservation plans, said Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy. “This USGS study is very relevant and indicates that the plans may not have designated enough protected habitat,” he said. “Right now they need to go further.

“Based on this analysis, which indicates that many of the proposed priority habitat patches are too small … it may be necessary to add to the priority habitat,” he said. “It also indicates that loopholes in the plans to allow for continued oil and gas drilling, mining, and power line construction need to be tightened up to ensure the priority habitat remains viable.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at or (307)...

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  1. When it comes to saving the animals, water, air, and land, not many in power positions really care. They just want their mansions and vacations to Europe. They don’t see the Constant haze built up in my neck of the woods. They don’t see the decline of the landscape and in the numbers of animals. Antelope herds used to be in the hundreds. Now? As I drive this great state as a courier I see fewer and fewer animals. I see that people will swerve to hit a rabbit, even a deer. Watched an oilfield hand swerve and hit to kill a deer up on 351 personally. Told authorities. They did whatever they do in these cases. Idk. I have seen over 14 eagle kills on the hwy on 351 in one year. You can’t tell me you don’t see them. I do. Day And Night. Our problem is, in the political system and resources industries, Greed runs amuck. Those who care about what and how they produce would stop doing it anyway that creates pollution. If I produce a product I know hurts Anyone, I fix it immediately and Stop doing that, immediately. LLC’s have given people the right to start something and not care about the outcome because they don’t lose their homes. Guess who thought those up? 😉 There is a giant lack of respect in business around the entire globe these days, not just here and our animals pay the highest price. They have no language most can understand. They cannot be paid to move. They cannot live just anywhere either. Going green energy is Wonderful, IF, done in a more ecological way. Not one giant farm sending power hundreds of miles away but!, little ones nearer each community. Rock Springs could feed herself with a small farm on Wh Mtn’s edges. They are not ugly, do not make a loud racket, and, I don’t see why they don’t play with the designs personally. Paint them different colors. What color do birds see the best and do not like? Paint them that color. We should be freeing ourselves from coal and other fossil fuels Before sending it off to others. Once we are clean, by all means, sell away. And solar on each home. Tesla has a new battery for the homes. I have not heard much more, yet. Change is unavoidable and only costs the people and the earth and it’s denizens more when the leaders fight. Stagnation kills, change reveals. Money is what speaks the loudest in the darkest of rooms. The poor grouse has little chance when energy is on the line. Well, if it weren’t wind, or oil, it would be something. I pray my doom and gloom feelings are shown otherwise but, I don’t believe it will happen. Good Luck my wild creatures of yore, Good Luck.

    Nadine Girouard

  2. The federal government is largely to blame for the decline in the grouse population. You cannot protect ravens and not have a negetive effect on grouse. The majority of the mineral rights in the West are owned by the federal government so any development is in partnership with the federal government . Everything in the macro scale is the result of federal policy from building Interstate Highways and encouraging sage brush removal to settling the West in the first place. All one has to look at is how the BLM fails to insist on proper operation and reseeding of some oil wells even in core areas. When the occasional bancrupt oil company fails to reclaim a location the BLM does nothing for years while the same situation on state or private minerals would be dealt with quickly by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission.

    The conditions that existed when the grouse numbers were high in Wyoming occured at the same time oil drilling and uranium exploration were not very regulated. What was different was that predators were controled at that time. Grouse need food, shelter and protection from predators. Drawing lines on computer maps does little if it does not improve those three basic needs.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, Wy

  3. What taxpayers really need to do at this point is pressure their senators and representatives to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund whose purpose among others is to conserve habitat for Threatened and Endangered species on both public and private lands.

    Bob Luce

  4. Taxpayers have generously paid out hundreds of million of dollars to “save” the sage grouse with no assurances that these efforts will be successful.

    Those responsible for the decline of the sage grouse need to fund the efforts to avoid a ESA listing.

    Tom Darnell