FWS report gives guidance for keeping sage grouse off endangered list

Aug 31, 2012

Since a court settlement last year in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to decide whether to list the sage grouse by September 2015, everyone—from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to local working groups—has been scrambling to make an endangered listing of the iconic, low-flying bird unnecessary. State wildlife departments have developed state-wide plans to help conserve the bird; local groups are developing voluntary programs; and BLM has launched a massive effort to amend all resource management plans (RMPs) covering BLM land harboring sage grouse—some 47 million acres. Nobody in their right mind, it seems, wants the sage grouse on the endangered species list. But through the buzz of activity, a nagging question has lingered: Are the steps being taking going to satisfy FWS that the sage grouse is being adequately protected?

According to a recently released FWS draft report, it now appears that efforts are likely to be on the right track.

Last week, the FWS Conservation Objectives Team (COT) released its Sage-Grouse Conservation Objectives Draft Report, which outlines general approaches state and local wildlife managers can make to “ameliorate threats” to sage grouse and help prevent habitat loss and fragmentation. The report also identifies what threats are most pressing in different areas of the sage grouse’s range. In other words, FWS has finally provided a target for state and local managers to aim at.

“The purpose [of the report] was essentially to define success,” explained Steve Ferrell, Wildlife and Endangered Species policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

Ferrell also represents Wyoming on the Sage Grouse Task Force on behalf of Mead, who is a co-chair of the group. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and BLM Director Mike Pool also co-chair the task force, which has governor level representation from all 11 western states with sage grouse, as well as from FWS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

The group convened last week to assess the findings of the COT report, which Ferrell deemed largely encouraging.

“I think that all 11 state reports can fit […] within the boundaries of the COT report,” Ferrell said, adding that “Wyoming’s plan dovetails very nicely with [it].”

Authored by a 14-member team of state and federal wildlife experts, the COT report defines threats, conservation goals, and general strategies for protecting the sage grouse across its 11-state range. For instance, the report calls on states to develop conservation plans for the grouse, maintain populations and habitat connectivity, implement regulatory mechanisms, and monitor the success of conservation efforts.

Yet in a crucial nod to the efforts of state and local wildlife managers, the report stopped short of giving specific on-site recommendations for sage grouse conservation, acknowledging that dictating wide-scale prescriptive actions was “inappropriate,” opting instead to provide a “framework which relies on local expertise for implementation.”

State wildlife managers have warmly welcomed this open-ended approach.

“A lot of us were concerned that the …report could have [been]… so specific that it would dictate what the states have to do,” remarked Ferrell. “The COT report doesn’t do that. …It gives the states a lot of decision space.”

In contrast to the COT’s approach, the BLM’s RMP amendment process has been criticized by the livestock industry and local government cooperators for favoring conservation measures based on the BLM’s National Technical Team (NTT) report, which gives specific prescriptions for grazing methods and stubble heights. Local governments have urged BLM to consider alternatives based on state or local plans, claiming that conservation methods based on the NTT report are too broad-brush.

“It uses the concept of ‘one-size-fits-all’ for eleven states,” said Moffat County, CO, Commissioner Tom Gray. “We know from the science that’s out there that managing sage grouse in a desert situation such as Utah is not the same as the high mountain plateau of northwest Colorado.”

Bob Budd, COT member and executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, emphasized that the COT report tried to leave as much room for local approaches to sage grouse conservation as possible, maintaining that local knowledge is essential for determining effective approaches.

“Honestly, the people in Nevada are better suited to take care of the bird in Nevada than anybody else,” Budd explained. “They know their state; they know their conditions; they know what they need to do. And they’ve developed a plan that I think addresses that.”

In the COT report, habitat loss and fragmentation due to development, fire, and invasive species like cheat grass and juniper were cited as major threats to sage grouse population success. Although the report mentioned that “inappropriate grazing” could lead to cheat grass encroachment, grazing was not called out as a major threat to sage grouse.

Environmental groups have given the COT report a positive reception, suggesting that the document may represent a rare instance of a middle ground in what is usually very contentious territory.

“We welcome the agency’s report as a good start in providing the scientific guidance that is critical for local and federal planning efforts to succeed,” Megan Mueller, a wildlife biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild told E&E News.

The COT draft report is currently undergoing peer review pending the release of a final version. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent