December 15, 2003
Sage Grouse: The New Spotted Owl of the West?
By Ross McSwain
Dec. 2003 -- The Sage Grouse, called "the cock of the Plains" when discovered by explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805, is now being called by many "the spotted owl of the West" as various environmentalists strive to put the bird on the federal endangered list.
Efforts to get the sage grouse added to the endangered species list have been ongoing for several years. In November 2001, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn called for coordinated work to be performed by local planning teams in his state to "help preserve the sage grouse and prevent a developer?s nightmare"-- the bird receiving endangered status.
Gov. Guinn pointed out during a press conference held at Carson City two years ago that the sage grouse is not just a Nevada issue, but is an issue throughout the western U.S. region, comprised of 15 states and three Canadian provinces.
An official with the Nevada Department of Wildlife told an Associated Press reporter that the reference to the spotted owl was valid because when the spotted owl was listed as an endangered specie, it had a significant impact on the economy and lifestyle of thousands of people living in the Pacific Northwest.
"It seriously threatened the American lumber industry,? a congressional aide to House Agriculture Committee member Charles Stenholm, (D-TX), noted when asked for information on the sage grouse endangered specie studies now being conducted by the U.S. Department of Interior.
Congressman Stenholm, the ranking democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and stalwart supporter of the American sheep industry, is aware of the matter ? and concerned about the outcome.
Experts with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service?s (USF&WS) Sheldon-Hart Mountain Refuge Complex at Lakeview, Ore., believe that as many as 2 million sage grouse inhabited a vast area of the western United States and Canada when explorers Lewis and Clark traveled the area in 1805. Now, sage grouse numbers are estimated between 140,000 to 250,000 in 11 states with declines reaching up to 80 percent in the last two decades.
John O?Keefe, a rancher from Adel, Ore., and chairman of the Sage Grouse Task Force of the Public Lands Council, says predator animals, such as red fox, coyotes, bobcats, wolves, various kinds of hawks and golden eagles, are the sage grouse?s worst enemy.
"Most sage grouses were doing real well when the Predator Control Association of the sheep industry was in operation. When we lost the use of Compound 1080 to control coyotes and other predators, the sage grouse decline started," O?Keefe observed.
Once a sheep rancher, O?Keefe said predators put him out of the sheep business. He now raises cattle.
O?Keefe said the task force he heads is involved in monitoring what happens as the various petitions seeking sage grouse protection make their way through government channels. In addition, the task force provides responses for industries that might be affected if the sage grouse is put on an endangered list, and "we might intervene if necessary" in a civil matter.
According to O?Keefe, the Gunnison specie of grouse is not among the species considered endangered. The Gunnison grouse is hunted annually in several western areas of the country, thus the Gunnison birds fall under state game commission regulations.
"Trying to put that bird on an endangered list would create some problems for state and federal agencies,? O?Keefe said. ?That would be a major conflict."
The Audubon Society?s watchlist information sheet, easily found on the World Wide Web, says the major threat to the greater sage grouse is the continued degradation and destruction of sagebrush habitat in its nesting areas. The society blames the U.S. Department of Agriculture for eliminating thousands of acres of native-scrub steppe habitat dominated by sagebrush, and also cites overgrazing and urban development as reasons for decline.
The American Sheep Industry (ASI), working with the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen?s Beef Association and National Grasslands Association through the Public Lands Council, takes the view that the listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species could have a very serious impact on the grazing of sheep and cattle, not only on federal lands but also on state and privately owned lands nationwide.
According to Tom McDonnell, ASI?s director of natural resources and policy, ASI opposes the listing of any species that is not truly threatened throughout its habitat, and whose listing is no more than a surrogate issue to eliminate multiple-use on federal land and to restrict the individual use of private property.
Attempts by protectionist groups to list the sage grouse clearly fall within the scope of this policy.
Concurrently, action on the sage grouse remains within state and local working groups as they continue to develop management plans for the conservation of sage grouse.
There are four major sage grouse issues, McDonnell says. First, the Wildlife Protection Institute filed suit against the USF&WS for not listing the western sage grouse. Second, the Bureau of Land Management issued drought strategy for the management of sage grouse habitat. Third, West Nile virus is responsible for the death of several sage grouse in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Finally, the Wildlife Protection Institute is now pursuing court action to list the eastern sage grouse.
Petitions filed by the Wildlife Protection Institute to list the western and the mono-basin sage grouse contained much substance, McDonnell notes, and the USF&WS found that the listings were not warranted. Failure to list the western sage grouse is now the basis of litigation by the environmentalists. At this time there is no need for the livestock industry to intervene or file amicus brief in the Wildlife Protection Institute case, as the USF&WS has indicated it will defend its decision not to list these grouse populations.
The West Nile virus-related death of sage grouse in Wyoming will be the wildcard, McDonnell says. Many biologists are unconcerned about the deaths as they believe the sage grouse will naturally build immunity to the virus. However, environmentalists may use the issue to petition for an emergency listing of the grouse. If an emergency listing does occur, then state and local efforts to manage the grouse and the disease within grouse populations will be impossible. The industry is monitoring this issue very closely.