Following a challenge in Idaho District Court, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could reclassify the greater sage grouse as protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A January 2005 decision by the U.S. fish and wildlife Service said protection of the large bird was not warranted. A nonprofit conservation group called Western Watersheds Project challenged that finding in federal court and in December, the court remanded the decision back to Fish and Wildlife for reconsideration.
In his 35-page order, Judge B. Lynn Winmill stated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision "was tainted by the inexcusable conduct of one of its own executives, Julie McDonald, whose tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating forest and wildlife service staffers."
Jody Brown, a deputy field supervisor with Fish and Wildlife in Nevada, offered no comment concerning the case, but did say the process would take about 12 months.
"We look at five different factors," Brown said. "Habitat is often the primary factor causing any species to be listed, but there could be other things."
Early settlers dubbed the large birds "sage chickens" and ate them like domestic fowl. Their habitat, which once extended through 16 states and three Canadian provinces, has been eliminated in five states and one province. Their populations have declined 30 percent across their range in past decades and as much as 80 percent in some places, according to an article by Susan Tweit, a field ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Most experts agree the main problem for the grouse today is the fragmentation and decline of sagebrush shrublands.
The gray-green shrub feeds the big grouse from November through February. It provides cover for nesting and breeding and in summer, as chicks pluck insects from the bunchgrasses and wildflowers growing under them.
Some grouse migrate long distances but others will stay put if the components of their habitat are in one area, Tweit said.
"That's one of the things that make sage grouse management so complicated," she said. "No single prescription will do the trick."
Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds said degradation of the historic habitat for sage grouse is being caused by ranching, farming, roads, towns, city developments, oil and gas production, vehicles and more recently in Nevada and Idaho, an increase in fires.
"Last year, almost one million acres burned in Nevada and Idaho," Marvel said. "Should that continue, these birds will be at very high risk."
Chris Healy, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, agreed that fires in Nevada and Idaho have burned a lot of habitat, bringing the sage grouse issue to the fore, but the problems are different in every state.
"In Wyoming, it's oil and gas development," he said. "In other parts of the West, the sage is aging and when that happens, it's not as productive for animals that rely on it, like mule deer and sage grouse."
Listing the sage grouse as an endangered species would mean landscapes across the west will be designated as critical habitat to benefit the birds' recovery, Marvel said.
"If approved, this decision would affect everyone who uses the land, from the people who recreate, work, raise cattle or mine, to those who build power lines," Healy said.
As important as sage is to grouse, it's equally vital to arid ecosystems. The shrub adds water to dry soils, collecting windblown snow on its lee side. As each drift of snow melts, water sinks into the earth. Soil dries out more quickly where sagebrush is removed, Tweit said in her article.
Between May 1999 and December 2003, eight petitions were filed with Fish and Wildlife to have sage-grouse protected under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. In 2001 Fish and Wildlife determined that greater sage-grouse in the Columbia Basin of Washington state warranted protection, but in 2005, they determined the grouse did not warrant protection in the balance of the range.
In Canada, the grouse are listed as Endangered under provisions of the Species at Risk Act.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife is opening a 90-day public comment period to allow all interested parties an opportunity to voice their opinions. Comments will be accepted until May 27 and can be submitted at http://www.regulations.gov, or mailed to:
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 222
Arlington, Va. 22203
• Susie Vasquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 782-5121, ext. 211.
The greater sage grouse is a large, round-winged ground-dwelling bird, up to 30 inches long and two feet tall. They have a long pointed tail and their legs are feathered to the base of the toes.
Females are a mottled brown, black and white and the males have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on their breasts, which they inflate during mating display.
The birds are found a elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.