Sage grouse non-listing: USDA offers $16 million to protect the birds

March 17, 2010

Remember the sage grouse? People groused because the U.S. Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service determined most populations of western sage grouse are threatened enough to earn listing as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act — but then refused to list the bird, because other plants and animals are even more threatened, and need attention sooner.  (I was one of those people complaining.)

It’s a new administration.  U.S. Department of Agriculture offered $16 million for projects to protect the bird’s habitat.  This ruling put increased pressure on state wildlife agencies, in an interesting if not unique twist of the issue of federalism, state vs. federal responsibility for wildlife and wild lands.  Wyoming wants $3 million right away, for projects mostly on private land.

In other words, the administration will sometimes find ways to do the right thing without doing the most difficult or controversial thing.  Ranchers and energy developers cheered by original decision are also happy about Ag’s proposed spending.  Environmentalists unhappy with the first ruling shouled be cheered by Ag’s action, too.  State agencies that worked hard to make the case for listing the bird may be cheered, also.

Sage grouse habitat threatened by deveolopment, in Nevada - Las Vega Sun graphic

Sage grouse habitat threatened by deveolopment, in Nevada - Las Vega Sun graphic

Readers of the Las Vegas Sun learned about the program last week — the Sun has covered the sage grouse as part of its coverage of alternative energy programs.  Much sage grouse habitat in Nevada overlaps wind energy and geothermal energy development zones.

Ranchers across the west are being offered millions of dollars in aid from the federal government to make their operations more environmentally sustainable and reduce their impact on the sage grouse the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today.

“USDA will take bold steps to ensure the enhancement and preservation of sage grouse habitat and the sustainability of working ranches and farms in the western United States,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “Our targeted approach will seek out projects that offer the highest potential for boosting sage-grouse populations and enhancing habitat quality.”

The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will soon begin accepting applications for two federal programs aimed at reducing threats to the birds such as disease and invasive species and improving sage-grouse habitat. The agency will have up to $16 million at its disposal for the programs.

The Wilderness Habitat Incentive Program provides up to 75 percent cost-share assistance to create and improve fish and wildlife habitat on private and tribal land.

Sage grouse face a difficult future.  State wildlife management agencies face a tough future, too, in trying to save the birds.  The nation needs energy resources found, often, where the sage grouse need lands to meet, mate and raise their young.  It’s a difficult balancing act.

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For sage grouse, not a nickel’s difference between Bush and Obama

March 9, 2010

Sage grouse don’t vote. If they did vote, they’d have a difficult time picking between Democrats and Republicans on their own life and death issues.

Of course, there aren’t enough sage grouse to make much of a difference on election day. That’s the problem.

Courting sage grouse - Gail Patricelli, UC-Davis

Courting sage grouse - Photo from Gail Patricelli, University of California - Davis

Last week the U.S. Department of the Interior released a decision on the fate of the sage grouse:  Near enough to extinction to merit protection under the Endangered Species Act, but too far down the list of endangered plants and animals to merit action on anything at the moment.

That means that the vanishing habitats of the little, magnificent bird, can be crushed by trucks making tracks across westerns prairies, deserts and mountains searching for oil.

Exxon-Mobil 1, Sage Grouse 0.  One might must hope that’s an early game score, and not the population counts.

Jim Tankersly explained the situation, more dispassionately, in The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Washington — The Interior Department declared Friday that an iconic Western bird deserves federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but declined to offer that protection immediately — a split decision that will allow oil and gas drilling to continue across large swaths of the mountainous West.

The department issued a so-called “warranted but precluded” designation for the greater sage grouse, meaning that the bird merits protection but won’t receive it for now because other species are a higher priority.

My childhood was marked by rapidly plummeting bird populations all around us.  Stopping the use of DDT benefited some of them, the Endangered Species Act benefited others.  Conservation efforts of groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society saved others, and helped all of them.  While I lived near a great river, a view of a heron, egret or crane is not what I recall from my childhood.  Our children know the birds well.

Land birds, like turkeys, are even more rare.  Turkeys, mostly in eastern forested areas, at least well out of the Mountain West, made dramatic recoveries with massive aid from state game commissions.  I recall one column from the Washington Post’s recently retired hunting and outdoors columnist, Angus Phillips, in which he confessed that with the aid of professional guides paid from the paper’s expense accounts, in more than 15 years of hunting he had heard, but never seen, a wild turkey. This was two weeks after we had come upon a flock just off the side of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the first I’d ever seen.

I remembered Phillips’ confession a few months later as I sat in the cold, at dawn, in a field at the Land Between the Lakes preserve of the Tennessee Valley Authority with other staff and members of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, when a guide summoned seven magnificent, lustful wild turkey toms to race across a field toward the lustful hen sounds the guide made with a part of a birth control diaphragm as a calling device.

In my years tramping the west for fun, in the months camping with the Scouts, in the professional tramping with the Air Pollution Lab and the Senate and the Utah Wilderness Commission, and just for fun, I’ve never seen a sage grouse.

Whether my children get such an opportunity, and their children, is a decision for the moment left to private interests, especially private groups with a financial stake in trampling out the nestings where the youth of grouse are grown.

Exxon-Mobil, will you and your colleagues go easy on the grouse, please?

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