Feds acknowledge threats to sagebrush habitat but say the birds will have to wait in line behind other species
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal officials said today that the greater sage-grouse qualifies for Endangered Species act protection, but will have to wait in line behind higher-priority species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a “warranted but precluded” designation for the birds at press conference led by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who acknowledged that the long-term outlook for greater sage-grouse is not good.
But smart planning, especially for energy development, combined with more federal resources to support state and local conservation efforts on private land should could help stabilize sage-grouse populations, Salazar said.
“We must find ways to protect habitat, while allowing for much-needed energy development and use of public land,” he said.
Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Strickland, another Coloradan, said the science shows greater sage-grouse do qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but that limited resources preclude an immediate listing.
Strickland said greater sage-grouse conservation must be addressed on a broad scale.
“We know that, without good planning, energy activities can have impact. We need to use the best science, the best information … to work collaboratively … We have a window of several years before a listing would be imminent. We hope that collaborative efforts can prevent the listing in future,” Strickland said.
The decision means federal land managers will continue to treat the sage-grouse as a sensitive species and monitor its numbers and health throughout its range in 11 Western states, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
The Department of Interior officials touted a Wyoming plan that focuses on protecting core habitat areas as a model for conservation. They said there’s “plenty of room in the West for energy development and sage grouse.”
Specifically, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land management will team up for stricter reviews of oil and gas drilling permits and scrutinize renewable energy project proposals, said Gary Frazer, USFWS assistant director for endangered species.
Conservation biologists said the decision is a wake-up call about growing threats to western sagebrush habitat from energy development, grazing, farming, invasive species, fires, herbicides and, more recently, West Nile virus. Twenty of 27 sage-grouse populations have declined since 1995, according to the latest analysis, while only seven populations were stable or increased during the same period.
Ben Deeble, a sagebrush habitat expert with the National Wildlife Federation in Montana said the ruling was encouraging because it was based on science and recognizes the sage-grouse’s predicament. But questions remain about how the bird’s habitat will be managed to stem further declines, he added.
“A business-as-usual approach isn’t going to conserve the sage-grouse or its sagebrush habitat,” Deeble said. “Now that the federal government acknowledges the decline of sage-grouse, we need to ensure that its land-management agencies reconcile their energy-development practices with the latest wildlife science. And we need strategies to cope with the impacts of drought, fires and invasive species brought on by climate change.”
Another key to saving sage-grouse is increased collaboration among state and federal agencies, private organizations and landowners, he said.
“A few governors have already taken steps to protect sage-grouse in their states, and we need to build on that momentum,” Deeble said. “Now we need partnerships on both public and private lands to properly manage and enhance the best remaining habitats.”
Filed under: energy, Environment, gas drilling, public lands, wildlife Tagged: | Colorado, endangered species act, Greater sage-grouse, Ken Salazar, sage-grouse won't get ESA protection, sagebrush habitat, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service