Friday, December 2, 2005

Conservation groups call for protection of grouse

Express Staff Writer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under fire from a collection of Western conservation groups over the agency's alleged failure to determine whether the sharp-tailed grouse should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey-based environmental group, said Fish and Wildlife has been issued a 60-day warning letter, which is basically a notice that the agency will be sued if it fails to meet certain criteria.

Western Watersheds, along with seven other conservation groups, submitted a petition to list the grouse over a year ago. Following a year of inaction from Fish and Wildlife, the groups issued the warning Nov. 22.

Marvel claims that Fish and Wildlife is required by law to conduct two separate reviews—90-day and 12-month findings—to accurately determine whether a species warrants federal protection.

"They didn't do either of those," Marvel said, adding that such actions have become all too common over the past six years.

"This is typical of the Bush administration," he said. "When it comes to administering the law, they ignore the law, which requires groups like ours to go to court to enforce it.

"The agency is instructed, we believe, to not respond to these issues until the court tells them to. That should be an embarrassment."

The number of listings under the Bush administration is at the lowest rate in the history of the Endangered Species Act, which was created in 1973. The current administration is averaging seven listings per year, compared to an average of 65 per year during the Clinton administration, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity.

The sharp-tailed grouse, also known as the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, after the Columbia River, once flourished in abundance across 11 Western states. Today, Marvel believes the bird occupies less than 10 percent of its historic habitat, with about 80-percent of the remaining population found in Idaho counties—mostly in the southern and southeastern parts of the state. The bird can also be found in isolated pockets in northern Washington, northeastern Nevada, northern Utah, south central Wyoming, northwestern Colorado, and central British Columbia.

Randy Smith, regional wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said historic numbers are down but the sharp-tailed grouse is thriving in isolated pockets. The populations are so healthy in Idaho that since 1991 Fish and Game has relocated over 1,000 sharp-tailed grouse to Oregon, Washington, Nevada and other parts of Idaho.

"They're doing pretty well," Smith said. "The state of Idaho has been pretty proactive in working with the other states to do whatever we can to keep them off the endangered species list."

The first petition to list the grouse as threatened or endangered under the ESA came in 1995. Fish and Wildlife denied the request and the bird has since become extinct in Montana.

Overhunting, grazing and development have all contributed to the sharp-tailed grouse's decline.

"Protection for the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse is urgently needed to avoid a downward spiral," Marvel said. "Inaction may cause this rare bird to join the many other species that have gone extinct due to delays in listing."

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 42 species have gone extinct awaiting an ESA listing, including the Amak Island song sparrow, the Virgin Islands screech owl and the Texas Henslow sparrow.

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