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RangeNet Project
Project Grouse


Western Sage Grouse Status Conference Summary
by Larry Walker

Here are just a few quick words about the Western Sage Grouse Status Conference that was held in Boise, Idaho on January 14-15, 1999.

First, a word of thanks to the Conference Cosponsors: Washington Audubon, Audubon Society of Portland, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Committee for Idaho's High Desert, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho
Watersheds Project, National Wildlife Federation, Nevada Wildlife Federation, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Oregon
Natural Desert Association, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Wildlife Management Institute, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Yakima Valley Audubon Society.

Short Summary: Western Sage Grouse are in BIG trouble

Longer Summary:

Western sage grouse have been extirpated from five states and one Canadian province, survive at population levels of 500 to 20,000 birds in two provinces and eight states, and survive at population levels of more than 20,000 birds in only three states. All states in the range of the western sage grouse are reporting declining populations over the last 20 years with the possible exception of Washington where habitat has benefited from the Conservation Reserve Program in one population area, and the Hanford Reach in the other. While there is some evidence of cyclic highs at about 10-year intervals, each high population level is lower than the preceding high. Furthermore, "examination of data from the Western States Sage Grouse Technical Committee (1995) indicates no sustained increases in sage grouse population levels within any portion of the range of this species." Some populations have declined by more than 80% in the last 20 years. Minimum sizes of habitats and populations for maintaining species viability have not yet been determined, but the presentations indicated that these numbers may be substantially larger than was previously believed.

Not surprisingly, the primary causes identified for the declines in western sage grouse are habitat loss and fragmentation.

The only real surprise of the conference was that the plight of the western sage grouse appears to be even greater than most of the conference attendees had anticipated. While no vote was taken, it was my impression that a strong majority of those present felt that data presented strongly supports the proposition that a designation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of at least "threatened" is clearly warranted for the western sage grouse.

In addition, recent research (last 5 to 8 years) has made two additional findings that are worthy of being highlighted. One is that sage grouse nest at much greater distances (up to 25 miles!) from leks than was previously believed. Merely protecting nesting habitat adjacent to leks is NOT ADEQUATE! The other finding is that the herbaceous understory cover, not just the shrubs, is a critical habitat component for successful nesting and brooding. A healthy herbaceous understory of perennial grasses and their associated forbs AT LEAST 7 INCHES HIGH from nesting through brooding (approximately mid April through June) is needed for reliable nesting success.

While the speakers were generally in consensus on the habitat requirements and population trends; and were quick to point out impacts due to urbanization, transportation facilities, noxious weeds, fire regimes, and expanded agriculture; they were just as adroit at dodging the implications of livestock grazing on the public lands which actually make up the majority of the habitat of remaining populations of western sage grouse! Such is the political power of the public lands livestock industry when the speakers are from state and federal agencies and western universities.

While the conference was very well managed and covered an astounding amount of information for such a short duration, there was one SLIGHT detraction - courtesy of the wise-use movement. The conference evidence for ESA listing was so
overwhelming that, in a post conference session for "conservationists", the conference leadership attempted to divide the session into two caucuses - one for those favoring ESA listing to discuss logistics for petitioning, and one for those opposing ESA listing to pursue strategies of their choice. A couple of advocates for more consensus/working groups to address the problem instead as an alternative to ESA listing were vocally unhappy with this proposal but did acquiesce. One rancher (a permittee) and one representative from the Cattlemen's Association declined the proposal and engaged in a tacky "sit-in". As the original purpose for this session (to discuss whether the data indicated ESA listing might be warranted) had been rendered moot by the overwhelming evidence of range-wide and continuing declines in western sage grouse populations, the sit-in was tacky rather than disruptive. The session chairman (Andy Kerr of Larch Company) did a marvelous job of handling this potentially volatile situation.

I also congratulate Mark Salvo of American Lands Alliance for organizing and directing this very productive conference that was attended by over 85 people. Well done, Mark!

A Post-Conference Note:

In a private discussion with a BLM employee, I learned that BLM management is "surprised" by the western sage grouse issue. Being a retired BLM employee myself, I am surprised that they are surprised - but maybe I shouldn't be! I remember at least one BLM meeting nearly a decade ago (I believe it was the 1990 "Sun River Conference") where BLM wildlife biologists sounded the alert that the western sage grouse was in trouble, that it was a "candidate 2 species", and that it had the potential for leading to the same kinds of controversy, conflict, and impact to BLM programs on rangelands that the plight of another candidate 2 species (the northern spotted owl, now a listed species) had caused in federal forest management programs.

The parallel with the northern spotted owl is why I guess I should not have been surprised. I was employed with BLM on the Medford District in the early 1970's when a handful of BLM and Forest Service wildlife biologists were vainly attempting to alert the agencies to what over-cutting was doing to the habitat of the northern spotted owl, and that the bird was rapidly slipping toward extinction. Then too, management was "surprised" when the "train wreck" occurred nearly a decade later!

That's it for now. Expect additional information in following days, weeks, and months at RangeNet's Projects under the heading "Sage Grouse".

Larry Walker
Webmaster for: RangeBiome, RangeNet, and Range Watch