A greater sage grouse chick. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife/USFWS)

Eighty environmental groups have asked U.S. House and Senate leaders to stop adopting budget riders that prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from writing or issuing Endangered Species Act protections for greater sage grouse.

The conservation consortium targets the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, an annual measure that since 2014 has prevented federal agency action protecting greater sage grouse under the ESA. Lawmakers have used annual budget riders to constrain the federal wildlife agency.

Any rider “blocks FWS from carrying out its basic responsibilities under the ESA,” the groups wrote in a two-page letter dated May 4.

“The rider undermines the science-based listing process that is critical to the ESA’s functionality,” the letter reads. Continued congressional intervention “would unduly prevent the FWS from properly assessing the condition of the species and would remove necessary incentives to achieve conservation progress,” the letter states.

The American Bird Conservancy, Audubon Naturalist Society, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Union of Concerned Scientists, World Wildlife Fund and many others signed on to the letter.

“With a new administration comes the renewed hope that Congress will do the right thing and remove the rider,” Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. Defenders is one of the groups that signed the letter.

The groups sent the letter as new reports question the health of greater sage grouse populations across 11 states in the West, their only home worldwide save a few places in Canada. A 260-page federal report published March 30 estimated an 81% decline in the species over the last 53 years.

That U.S. Geological Survey publication “Range-Wide Greater Sage-grouse Hierarchical Monitoring Framework,” found a bright spot in Wyoming, which holds an estimated 38% of the world’s 200,000-500,000 sage grouse. But other Wyoming news — including the revelation last week that Wyoming hunters in 2019 killed 7,615 of the imperiled birds — raise questions about that sport and sage grouse conservation generally.

Trump rolled back protections

To protect sage grouse, the Obama Administration in 2015 revised nearly 100 federal land-use plans — documents governing use and development on U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service property — to conserve sage grouse. Based on assurances in those programs, the USFWS decided then that greater sage grouse did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

ESA protection would give the federal government oversight over development of, and habitat conditions on, millions of acres in the West. That prospect worries states like Wyoming whose economies depend on oil and gas and ranching industries that use federal lands.

Bob Budd at the Sage Grouse Implementation Team meeting in Lander on July 10, 2019. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

But the Trump administration upended the 2015 initiative and USFWS findings, the letter states. “The harm to the sage-grouse and its habitat from four years of rollbacks under the previous [Trump] administration fundamentally undermines the assumptions behind the FWS’s 2015 not-warranted decision and places the species at greater risk,” the letter reads.

Not only have greater sage grouse declined 80% since 1965, the groups said in their budget letter, but the USGS report found population losses continuing in more recent decades when grouse population trend estimates may be more accurate. Since 2002, greater sage grouse populations have diminished by 40%, the groups wrote, quoting the scientific paper.

Wyoming hasn’t yet embraced the USGS report. The state contributed 60 years of data to that report but did not participate in modeling, said Angie Bruce, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s director of external operations. “We are still kind of assessing it,” she told the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team on May 5.

As for a reaction, “we don’t really have one yet,” she said.

SGIT chairman Bob Budd questioned the report’s use of older data — including counts of strutting male grouse on spring breeding-ground leks that form the basis of most population estimates.

“You take this big wide-ranging ‘data set,’ that is the 1960s, which is maybe not even data, and then try to put it [into] 2020 — that isn’t going to work,” Budd said. Instead, he and Leslie Schreiber, Game and Fish sagebrush and sage grouse biologist, have asked for a USGS analysis of a shorter period, he said

That shorter view could show whether sage grouse populations are generally improving as they oscillate through troughs and peaks believed to be part of regular cycles of reproductive success and decline. The USGS report showed that estimated population troughs — low points in Wyoming grouse cycles — have not become exceedingly deeper and have improved slightly over recent years.

“We talked about … refining it down to other periods,” Budd said, “and being able to say ‘okay, for two troughs and two peaks, what are we seeing?’”

“The sky isn’t falling,” Budd told the state grouse team. “It’s a start,” he said of the federal report. “I think to react any differently is to overreact, one way or the other.”

Wyoming could use some of the USGS findings and proposals, SGIT team member Brian Rutledge told the group May 5. Among those is a “targeted annual warning system” designed to alert managers of trouble spots.

But he’s also worried that the federal report will cause some agencies to ship their oars, believing that all necessary data has been collected. Instead, other states need to undertake the same level of reporting that Wyoming shoulders.

“There’s the impression that they can evaluate everything from a satellite,” Rutledge said of some who enthusiastically embrace modeling reports . “But you can’t count grouse turds from the satellite,” he said, urging use of all research techniques.

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“We’re busy trying to get Wyoming’s tool set in use in other places,” Rutledge said. “We should be also open to using new tool sets in Wyoming.”

Rutledge has worried that federal involvement, including a decision that the bird needs ESA protection, will diminish state conservation work. “I’m very interested in keeping 11 states working on the recovery of this species,” Rutledge has said.

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 angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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