Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Advisers reject sage grouse listing

Biologists and Interior Department official differ on biological assessments

Express Staff Writer

Idaho's congressional delegation and governor responded quickly on Friday to an announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it probably would not list the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

"I applaud this initial recommendation against listing the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species, and I encourage the federal government to take this determination to heart and make it a reality," said Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "The benefit of good science is that it leads to well-informed decisions like this one."

Despite the agency's finding that sage grouse populations continue to decline at .37 percent annually across the species' range, Idaho senior Sen. Larry Craig proclaimed that the agency's announcement reiterates that "sage grouse are thriving in Idaho and in the West."

Rep. Mike Simpson said the agency was able to come to the "accurate conclusion" while facing pressure from "extreme environmental groups" that have filed 3,030 pages worth of sage grouse petitions with the service since May 1999.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams will review the recommendation, which was made by the agency's regional directors and senior biologists on Friday, before making a final decision by Dec. 29.

But The New York Times reported Sunday that the panel that made the recommendation that the greater sage grouse was in no immediate danger of extinction was supplied with competing views of available science.

"Prior to the settlement of the Western United States by European immigrants in the 19th century, sage grouse lived in 13 states and 3 Canadian provinces. Sagebrush habitats that potentially supported sage grouse occupied approximately 463,509 square miles," Fish and Wildlife's biologists wrote.

On the other hand, Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary of the interior, wrote: "This entire discussion of estimated habitat, estimated range, estimated population should be eliminated as it is 1) not supported by contemporary accounts, 2) not supported by data and 3) simply a fairy tale, constructed out of whole cloth, based on a series of arbitrary assumptions."

The biologists wrote that sage grouse depend almost entirely on sagebrush throughout winter months for food and cover.

MacDonald wrote: "I believe that is an overstatement, as they will eat other stuff if it's available."

But Williams appeared to put faith in his agency's findings.

"Our biologists have conducted a thorough review of the best available scientific information and, in their view, recommend that the greater sage grouse does not warrant the special protections of the act across its range," Williams said.

Williams said the best solution for conserving the greater sage grouse is for federal agencies and western states to continue to support cooperative efforts to conserve and restore sage grouse habitat.

"Together we have worked effectively with local governments, tribes, local communities, conservation groups, private landowners and other partners to conserve and restore sagebrush habitat that is vital to sage grouse and many other species," Williams said. "We must continue—and wherever possible, expand—these efforts to achieve measurable, on-the-ground habitat conservation and restoration."

For those who petitioned for the sage grouse's listing, the decision announced Friday was a disappointment.

"Sage grouse have suffered precipitous declines in recent decades," said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign and one of the leading petitioners. "A listing would have required the federal government to protect sagebrush habitat where the sage grouse lives. By not listing the species, damaging activities will be allowed to continue on much of the sagebrush steppe, to the detriment of sage grouse and scores of other wildlife species."

The historic range of sage grouse closely conformed to the distribution of sagebrush in what became 16 Western states and three Canadian provinces. But since 1900, sage grouse populations have fallen drastically, and the species no longer occurs in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma or British Columbia.

It does, however, still inhabit 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, sage grouse are estimated to number from 142,000 to 500,000. Their populations declined an average of 3.5 percent per year from 1965 to 1985. Since 1986, however, populations in several states have increased or generally stabilized, and the rate of decline from 1986 to 2003 slowed to .37 percent annually across the species' whole range, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Salvo noted that the sage grouse discussion may not yet be over.

"Our attorneys will be reviewing the final decision when issued and advising us on our legal options," he said. "The only science upon which the Bush Administration based this decision was political science. They are paying back their political base in the grazing and oil and gas industries."

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