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Report Demonstrates Threats to Sage-Grouse, but Bush Appointees Refuse to Admit Need for Protection
SANTA FE, N.M. - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has released a “Greater Sage-grouse Interim Status Update” relating the agency’s current understanding of the status and threats to greater sage-grouse. While the interim update describes severe threats to sage-grouse, a “dearth of effective State or Federal measures” to conserve the species, and long term declines in grouse populations, Service officials have declared that the report probably does not support listing the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“This report and the Service’s interpretation of it are a study in contrasts: while the science supports protecting the sage-grouse, Bush appointees refuse to admit the need for federal safeguards,” said Mark Salvo, Director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians. “This is the Bush Administration’s parting shot at sage-grouse as it heads out the door.”
The Service rejected a petition to list greater sage-grouse as “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA in 2005. But the Federal District Court of Idaho remanded that decision back to the Service in 2007 after finding that the agency failed to consider the best available science in its listing decision and that Bush Administration appointees unduly influenced the decision-making process.
The interim update, issued just two working days before the Bush Administration will expire, is unusual because it does not convey a listing decision for greater sage-grouse. The Idaho court ordered the agency to issue a decision in May 2009. However, the interim update and particularly the transmitting memoranda may be a last effort by the Bush Administration to prejudice the new Administration against protecting the grouse under the ESA.
“This is the ultimate Friday afternoon policymaking for which the Bush Administration became infamous,” said Salvo. “One last gift for the oil and gas and livestock industries.”
In October, WildEarth Guardians published a report, The Shrinking Sagebrush Sea, presenting spatial analyses of sage-grouse current range and three important threats to the species: gas and oil development, livestock grazing, and the spread of cheatgrass in the West. The report showed that these factors, individually or cumulatively, affect more than 80 percent of sage-grouse habitat on public and private lands in the Interior West. The analyses also found very little of sagebrush steppe-less than three percent of sage-grouse current range-benefits from some level of federal protection. Significant additional research has been published in the last three years indicating that sagebrush steppe is one of the most endangered ecosystem types in the United States.
Excerpts from the Greater Sage-Grouse Interim Status Update, Executive Summary:
The amount and scale of oil and gas exploration and development has expanded since 2005, as has loss of habitat due to increased fire frequency which has exacerbated the spread of invasive species such as cheatgrass. These concerns were identified as primary threats in our 2005 finding and remain so, but with more intensity and on a larger scale. Additional concerns include an increase in the use of sagebrush habitat for renewable energy such as wind power, and the increased threat posed by West Nile Virus. Concomitantly with this increase in threats, there has been a dearth of effective State or Federal measures adopted to assist in avoiding, minimizing or mitigating the known significant impacts to greater sage-grouse. (pages 3-4, emphasis added)
Despite a dramatic decline in sage-grouse numbers in the last 40 years, trends in recent years reflect variability in this decline, and some populations have stabilized or possibly increased. Although estimates of population size are difficult to obtain with accuracy and precision, there still appear to be hundreds of thousands of sage-grouse extant across its range. Nonetheless, the distribution of these numbers is not uniform across the range of the species. Approximately 50 percent of these birds occur in a relatively small portion of the species range (within 1 of 7 floristic regions or State wildlife agency “Management Zones”), and 90 percent occur within 3 Management Zones, with the greatest intensity of threats generally concentrated in these areas. Our ongoing and subsequent analyses of threats in these Management Zones will allow us to accurately characterize the current status of greater sage-grouse. (page 4, emphasis added)
The Service’s Regional Director for Region 6 transmitted the interim update by memorandum to his superiors on December 16. While the Regional Director recognized that “there are serious threats to sage brush [sic] habitat,” he also touted the “many positive efforts underway that are addressing these challenges.” This statement contradicts information in the interim report, which indicated a lack of effective state and federal protections for sagebrush and sage-grouse.
The Regional Director highlighted the “Healthy Lands Initiative,” a program administered by the Bureau of Land Management, as a program that has benefited sagebrush steppe. But the Healthy Lands Initiative will not save the sage-grouse. It would not restore nearly enough habitat to prevent further population declines, particularly since grazing, gas and oil drilling, off-road vehicles and other harmful activities will continue on public lands. For example, a project in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada that would treat up to 23,000 acres for flammable invasive species would likely be undone in less than a week given that invasive plants are spreading at a rate of 4,600 acres per day in the West.
The Regional Director also suggested that there are “many uncertainties regarding accurate population counts, distribution, and our understanding of how the threats affect different populations and the species as a whole,” which ignores most of the 240-page interim assessment addressing these issues.
Dale Hall, the Service Director, also wrote a memorandum to the Department of Interior concerning the interim update on December 18. He summarized his communication with the Service’s Region 6 Director and Sage Grouse Coordinator, who stated “the three Regional Directors that oversee sage grouse habitat agreed that the threats to sage grouse would not likely rise to a level to support a positive petition finding,” despite information presented in the interim update.