The greater sage grouse thrives in the sagebrush landscape of the West. USDA NRCS photo.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only has until September 2015 to decide whether the greater sage grouse warrants inclusion on the endangered species list. In the meantime, states, organizations and industry are scrambling to find ways to keep the bird off the list.

Kelsey Dayton

“It’s coming and it’s big and it’s really important,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said of sage grouse while addressing the Society of Environmental Journalists Sept. 5 in New Orleans.

Only a few days later, on Sept. 9, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced the state’s management plan to prevent listing the bird, unveiling a conservation strategy modeled after Wyoming’s.

Montana’s plan, some say, is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an ambitious plan, modeled after the Wyoming approach,” Tim Baker, Bullock’s natural resources policy advisor, told attendees of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) media summit in Montana Sept. 10.

Wyoming’s plan is science-based and was forged by working with various groups of stakeholders in a cooperative spirit, he said. “That was incredibly remarkable to us,” he said.

A sage grouse chick. The greater sage grouse is an indicator species for the general health of the sagebrush habitat across the West, which many other species rely on for survival. (Tom Koerner/USFWS — click to enlarge)

However, there are critics who say some key scientific information is ignored in Wyoming’s sage grouse management plan.

Montana’s sage grouse population is second only to Wyoming’s. There are 1,000 active leks in Montana, and one-third of the state contains sage grouse habitat. Montana’s sage grouse “core areas” span about 10 percent of state, Baker said.

Of the state’s sage grouse habitat, 64 percent falls on private land, causing unique challenges. Bullock’s plan, which will be part of his upcoming budget requiring legislative approval, would include a fund to promote voluntary practices to conserve sage grouse habitat on private lands. The plan allows for existing land uses, including oil and gas development, but calls for avoiding new development in core areas when possible. New land uses or activities within core areas may not contribute to sage grouse decline, according to Baker.

According to  news reports the plan received mixed reviews with some conservation groups saying it provided insufficient safeguards for the birds’ leks, while representatives from petroleum, mining and ranching hailed the strategy.

Montana’s plan calls for six staff members, who will work under the direction of the governor’s office. “It reflects the significance of the issue for the state,” Baker said.

Montana is playing catch-up to Wyoming. Previous administrations in Montana felt sage grouse were a federal issue, but Bullock prioritized it when he took office in 2013, Baker said.

Several other states also have plans in place, including Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. Other states need to get on board and create conservation strategies, Baker said. “If you have states that are laggards it brings everyone else down,” he said.

Work to protect the sage grouse is an example of why agencies need to move to full landscape planning, said Mike Connor, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, while at the Sept. 9 TRCP media summit in Montana.

Greater sage grouse hen with brood on Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. (Tom Koerner/USFWS — click to enlarge)

“We’ve got to think much broader than we have,” he said.

Sage grouse thrive in vast tracts of undisturbed sagebrush ecosystems, said Ed Arnett, director of TRCP’s Center for Responsible Energy Development. While other wildlife, like antelope or mule deer, might use sagebrush habitat, they can also survive on other landscapes. None are as dependent on it as the birds.

“When you disturb landscapes, sage grouse go away, it’s just that simple,” Arnett said.

Greater sage grouse on Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. (Tom Koerner/USFWS — click to enlarge)

While it may appear a monumental effort to protect just a single species of bird, wildlife biologists understand that the greater sage grouse is an indicator species; when sage grouse struggle, it means the entire sagebrush ecosystem is in trouble.

“Sage grouse are a modern day canary in a coal mine,” Arnett said.

People who worry that a listing to protect the bird will hurt ranchers and the economy are correct, Arnett said. It’s why conservation efforts to-date have relied on buy-in by various stakeholders, from agriculture to energy and sporting groups.

They key is bringing stakeholders together and building on conservation efforts — even if the bird is not listed next year.

“It certainly took a good crisis to bring all these people together,” Arnett said.

Creating the Montana plan brought together agencies like the BLM and Forest Service and forced managers think beyond their borders to talk about landscape-wide planning and how to best manage entire ecosystems, said Ken Mayer, the fire and invasive species coordinator with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Mayer, former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said he’s optimistic the greater sage grouse won’t make the list if groups work together and other states implement plans. A listing isn’t based on population numbers, but on myriad threats the birds face, including wildfires and invasive species.

As states move forward in protecting the birds, it’s important to remember the efforts are for the sage ecosystem, not just one bird, said Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Conservation strategies are about long-term planning, something states should be doing anyway.

“This is an opportunity,” he said, “not a train wreck.”

The lesser prairie-chicken is a grassland-nesting bird of the southern Great Plains.  (Linda Rockwell — click to enlarge)
The lesser prairie-chicken is a grassland-nesting bird of the southern Great Plains.  (Linda Rockwell — click to enlarge)
This sage grouse was in a lek. The sagebrush ecosystem is home to unique plant and wildlife species, and is very important to the overall ecological health of eastern Oregon and many other western states, including Wyoming. (Bureau of Land Management Oregon/Washington — click to enlarge)

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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