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Mar-05-2010 19:45printcomments

Federal Decision Over Sage Grouse Disappointing

It will be placed on the Candidate List with other species whose status is also in limbo. In other words, it gets to wait in line.

sage grouse
sage grouse
Courtesy: BLM

(PATAGONIA, ARGENTINA) - 30 years ago I went to see the sage grouse perform their mating dance ritual. They line up and face off, it is remarkable to see. Their plight in the nation took a step forward today, but it was a small step.

The nation’s leading bird conservation organization - American Bird Conservancy, today called the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the greater sage-grouse "disappointing, but hopeful".

They determined that the sage-grouse warrants federal protection as an endangered species, but that it will not be listed due to other priorities.

Instead, it will be placed on the Candidate List with other species whose status is also in limbo. In other words, it gets to wait in line.

“FWS got the science right but passed on the opportunity to fully protect this bird today,” said ABC President George Fenwick.

“We are hopeful that FWS will now use this decision to bring all parties and agencies together to create effective management decisions that will balance development needs while halting sage-grouse population declines.”

What a Show

I am sure you have seen these on some nature show. They puff out their chest really big and they are a bright yellow color. I got up before dawn to go to the top of a mountain in the area around Malheur Field Station.

In those days biology, botany and geology students could actually go to the mating grounds and watch this unusual bird as part of science field trips with various colleges.

In regard to this delicate creature, Fenwick said, “Here is a bird that has seen its range reduced to about half of its historic expanse, with an overall population decline of 50% or more over the past 50 years, extirpation in several states, and 30% declines even in the states where populations are deemed secure."

“These facts certainly demonstrate that this species is at risk. The Greater Sage Grouse needs a comprehensive national conservation plan and a strong and binding commitment to no net loss of its sagebrush habitat range-wide. Seventy percent of the species’ habitat is on public lands, yet less than 1% is legally protected from activities that might be detrimental to grouse. We feel that listing the Greater Sage Grouse on the Endangered Species List is the best way to reverse the bird’s decline and ensure its survival. However, if the FWS can use today’s decision to establish a 'no net loss of sage habitat' standard and a comprehensive conservation plan, then we are all for it,” he added.

Of course when it comes to the beautiful show of nature that I described above, it is something that stopped long ago.

The last time I visited Malheur it was pretty decrepit and falling down. Still it is the place to base yourself if you want to see the bird migrations in the spring and fall.

In Oregon anyhow.

Currently, plans for protecting the species vary markedly, the American Bird Conservancy stated in their press release today.

"Sage-grouse are very susceptible to disturbance on their leks (breeding grounds), and are increasingly impacted by oil and gas development and the burgeoning wind industry. Studies show that sage-grouse need a minimum buffer zone, where there is no development, of three miles around leks for breeding. One current plan in Wyoming, a key state for the species, calls for a buffer zone of only 0.6 miles within so-called “core” breeding areas, and as little as 0.3 miles outside these areas, which ABC has called 'unacceptable'".

Fenwick said, “There is plenty of wind out there for energy development: With careful planning, America can have both responsible wind energy and recovering sage-grouse populations.”

The Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming Sage-Grouse Management Plan also allows for one drilling or wind “pad” per square mile within core areas, which will lead to further habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation of sagebrush habitat from associated construction of roads. The plan also fails to include a number of core sage-grouse habitat areas such as parts of the Powder River Basin. ABC has criticized the plan as insufficient to ensure stable populations over the long term.

“Getting any species off the Candidate List and onto the Endangered Species List is a considerable challenge. FWS needs to find a way to bring people together and reach agreements that protect this bird in the face of the huge development plans that are underway and will impact its prime habitat. We need to protect a magnificent species that is in trouble, and to allow thoughtful planning for proposed energy development to get it right from the start.” Fenwick said.

“We have known for many years that the sage-grouse was facing a listing consideration and yet, knowing that, we’ve seen no dramatic turnarounds. In fact, we continue to see well intentioned efforts that do not go nearly as far as they need to. Formal ESA listing is needed here.” Fenwick added

The causes for the decline of sage-grouse are varied, and include the loss or degradation of habitat arising from grazing and agriculture, energy development, and fires that are escalated by invasive vegetation such as cheatgrass. Additional threats include mosquito-borne West Nile virus, and collisions with wire fences that the birds cannot see.

Special thanks to American Bird Concervancy

Gail Parker is a writer and photographer who lives in Argentina. She and her lifetime mate and husband Eddie Zawaski, who also writes for, are former residents of Oregon, Gail has a great eye for memorable photos in this lush place called Patagonia. Her observations from this amazing wonderland of nature are a fun and welcome addition to our story flow.

Watch for Gail's wonderful coverage of the birds of Patagonia in future stories and photojournals here on

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