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Conservation group calls for stronger protection for North Dakota sage grouse

Citing the perilously small population of birds

LARAMIE, WY Conservationists called for strong protections for sage grouse in North Dakota, citing the perilously small population of birds and the need to take action to protect key habitats now, before recovery becomes extremely costly or impossible. The Bureau of Land Management has just released a Draft of its land-use plan amendment options to address sage grouse conservation in North Dakota.

"Sage grouse on the very edges of the bird's range are adapted to challenging habitat conditions, and as climate change puts stress on wildlife habitats across the Northern Plains, these peripheral populations may contain the birds that are best-adapted to survive," said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with WildEarth Guardians. "If we start losing sage grouse in places like North Dakota, we may be losing our best chance for sage grouse survival as a whole on the Northern Plains."

While there were once hundreds of strutting sage grouse males in southwestern North Dakota, now this population is perilously close to disappearing altogether. Sage grouse were hit hard by West Nile virus in 2007 and have never recovered, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and the spring count turned up only 50 breeding males this year, the smallest number ever recorded.

"The Bureau of Land Management can give North Dakotas sage grouse their best shot at survival and recovery by designating generous amounts of key habitat for the bird, and minimizing industrial developments and conversion to cropland in key wildlife habitats," added Molvar. "Hundreds of other types of wildlife benefit when we protect sage grouse habitat. The sage grouse is like the canary in the coal mine, warning us when things are getting out of balance. Healthy sage grouse populations are an indicator of healthy wildlife habitats generally, which confer economic and recreational benefits for North Dakota."

The BLM's proposed plan does a good job of designating Priority Habitats for grouse, according to the conservation group, but neglects to apply strong management to industrial development within these habitats, according to WildEarth Guardians' analysis of the agency's preferred plan. While wind farms would be excluded from Priority Habitat for grouse, these sensitive lands would be open to strip mining and powerline corridors, and oil and gas drilling could move forward without sufficient protections for grouse.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Departments draft grouse management plan points out that oil wells must be widely spaced, with little or no industrial development within four miles of breeding sites, and maximum 3% overall human disturbance per square mile. These thresholds would be adopted in two of the alternatives, but the agency's Preferred Alternative would not adopt any measures at all with regard to these thresholds.

"When Lewis and Clark crossed these Plains, they recorded their observations of sage grouse, and grouse have been part of North Dakota's natural heritage ever since," concluded Molvar. "The federal government should follow the blueprint laid out by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to keep industrial impacts in the 'low to none' category in these most important lands. It would be irresponsible to designate the most important wildlife habitats for this declining population and then allow industrial interests to destroy it."


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