Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Seeking sage grouse survival strategies

Local efforts include land trust protection and ranch restoration

Express Staff Writer

Large air sacs on the breasts of male sage grouse are inflated to make a plopping sound when the birds are strutting to entice mates on dancing grounds, called leks, in the spring. Photo courtesy Robert M. Griffith

"Small, local land protection can have a big impact nationwide. It can't be just all the federal government coming in and doing it. The more and more of these being done in the West, the more likely this species can survive and stay off the Endangered Species Act."

—Dan Gilmore, Wood River Land Trust

Across the West's expansive sweeps of sagebrush desert, small agrarian communities speckle the landscape and farms and ranches stretch for miles along romantic rural roads. But the benign-looking small towns and agricultural land surrounding them—in short, human development and impacts—have for years been killing one of the West's hallmark species.

A decision is expected today from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether or not to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species. It won't be much of a surprise if the federal agency announces not to tuck the large Western grouse under the government's bureaucratic wing.

The service issued a statement earlier this month describing a recommendation by senior agency biologists and policy wonks not to list the species. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams said he would review the recommendation before issuing a decision today.

But at the grassroots level, people aren't waiting around for the government to figure out what to do. Private organizations and locally oriented public land field offices around the West are working in various ways to preserve and restore sage grouse habitat.

"The sage grouse is probably not going to be listed, but that doesn't mean it's not important," said Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger. "Sage grouse are still under stress, and their habitat needs to be protected before it's lost. If we can do something of significance, this is the opportunity."

Earlier this month, the land trust announced its purchase of 320 acres of sagebrush desert and wetlands south of Timmerman Junction. The fundamental reason for the purchase was to protect an inherent sage grouse mating ground, which biologists call a lek.

Were the property sold on the free market, in all likelihood it would have been subdivided and developed, and another piece of sage grouse habitat would have been destroyed.

"The main reason for the decline of the sage grouse is the development of their habitat through commercial and residential building, oil and gas development and so-on," said Dan Gilmore, the land trust's community outreach director. "So the preservation of private lands throughout the West will be critical for the continued survival of the species.

"Small, local land protection can have a big impact nationwide. It can't be just all the federal government coming in and doing it. The more and more of these being done in the West, the more likely this species can survive and stay off the Endangered Species Act."

The land in question is 3.5 miles south of the blinking light at Timmerman Junction and on the west side of Highway 75. It includes 22 acres of wetlands, a small lake and rolling sage and grass prairie.

The land trust bought the property for $320,000, 41 percent less than its appraised value of $540,000. The lower price enabled the land trust to buy it and allows the seller to take a tax deduction.

"Our family is proud to be part of this project and see the sage grouse habitat left intact," said Dan Brown, the property's former owner. "We are grateful to the Wood River Land Trust for being the mechanism to protect this land for the future. I don't see any other way this would have happened."

But the local land trust isn't the only group looking for innovative ways to help the sage grouse recover.

Lava Lake Land and Livestock is a large sheep ranching operation based near Carey. Along with its sister organization, called the Lava Lake Foundation for Science and Conservation, the ranch's mission is to create a sustainable ranching business paired with improved land management, scientific research and habitat restoration.

"We are so committed to this principle that 100 percent of the profits from the sale of our grass-fed lamb helps fund our conservation work," according to the ranch Website.

For the last several years, Lava Lake has been working with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management to monitor sage grouse movements in the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains and the deserts south of Highway 20 in Craters of the Moon National Monument.

"We're trying to get a better understanding of how many sage grouse there are in the areas we operate as well as on monitoring how they use various habitats throughout our area," said Lava Lake Manager Mike Stevens. "Ultimately, tweaking the grazing program we have is the goal."

Lava Lake was also recently approved for a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that will enable the ranch to perform a series of habitat restoration projects on ranch-owned land in the Fish Creek watershed. The projects will consist of riparian restoration and upland seeding, Stevens said.

The concept of grassroots conservation in sage grouse protection is not entirely new. In the mid-1990s, private citizens and conservation groups in Colorado paired up with public land managers to attempt heading off Endangered Species Act listing of the sage grouse and formed the model for local working groups.

For the last decade, local working groups have been one of the cornerstones of the effort to reverse the decline of sage grouse populations. There are seven local working groups in Idaho, said Tom Hemker, upland game program manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"Most of the projects that have been done for sage grouse have come through working groups—that is for private land," Hemker said. "Certainly the BLM is doing a lot of work, too."

Idaho's most recent sage grouse management plan was completed in 1997, and a revision is due in March 2005. Hemker said sage grouse populations in Idaho have improved slightly in recent years, but at the time of the plan's adoption they were at record low numbers.

The plan was designed as a framework for local working groups to work within.

"The state believes that conservation efforts for sage grouse need to continue, whether they're listed or not," Hemker said. "There are a lot of threats out there, and if we don't deal with them we'll be facing a different petition (for listing) and, potentially, a different decision next time."

And one thing most everyone agrees on is that listing could trigger vast changes in how public and private land are managed throughout the West.

"It would change almost the way everything is done on public lands, potentially, because all the uses on public lands couldn't get into something that affects sage grouse," said John Augsburger, a wildlife biologist with the Idaho office of the BLM. "It would be astronomic."

"It would certainly complicate land management throughout the West," Hemker offered.

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