Sage-Grouse Decision a Wake-Up Call

Business-as-usual approach will not be enough to conserve the sage-grouse or its sagebrush habitat

03-05-2010 // Blair Johnson
Male sage grouse 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that the Greater Sage-grouse will have to wait in line for Endangered Species Act protection behind higher-priority species. This so-called “warranted but precluded” designation means federal land managers will continue to treat the sage-grouse as a sensitive species and monitor its numbers and health throughout its range in 11 Western states.

National Wildlife Federation believes the decision to list the Greater Sage-grouse is a wake-up call about the bird’s dwindling numbers and its disappearing sagebrush habitat. Most populations of Greater Sage-grouse have been declining for years due to pressure from energy development, farming, grazing invasive species, fires, herbicides and more recently the West Nile virus. In fact, 20 of 27 sage-grouse populations have declined since 1995 while only seven populations were stable or increased during the same period.

In addition to highlighting the plight of Greater Sage-grouse, the announcement sends a strong warning about the decline of the sagebrush habitat where the birds live.

Sagebrush is the most overlooked and underappreciated Western landscape,” said NWF’s Kate Zimmerman. “If we don’t pay attention to what science is telling us, sage-grouse and other sagebrush species – even pronghorn antelope – could end up in deeper trouble. Losing this unique habitat would also be devastating for the many people who enjoy outdoor recreation or rely on tourism in sagebrush country.”

Although the USFWS ruling is encouraging because it isbased on science and recognizes the sage-grouse’s predicament, important questions remain about how the bird’s habitat will be managed to stem further declines, said Ben Deeble, NWF's sagebrush habitat expert.

“A business-as-usual approach isn’t going to conserve the sage-grouse or its sagebrush habitat,” Deeble said. “We need to ensure that its land-management agencies reconcile their energy-development practices with the latest wildlife science. And we need strategies to cope with the impacts of drought, fires, and invasive species brought on by climate change."

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