Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sage grouse saga far from over

Hailey-based group files lawsuit to protect wide-ranging bird species


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

A male sage grouse makes a colorful display of fluff and feathers for a potential mate. The birds are known for their intricate courting rituals. Photo by

The Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project has gone to bat once more in an effort to force the federal government to protect the greater sage grouse and its habitat in Idaho and 10 other Western states.

On Monday, March 8, the environmental group filed a legal challenge in Idaho federal court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a continuing effort to force the agency to give the wide-ranging bird full protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit is in direct response to an announcement by the Fish and Wildlife Service on March 5 that declared the greater sage grouse deserving of full protection under the ESA, but that listing is currently precluded by the agency's need to focus on other species. According to the agency, greater sage grouse will be proposed for listing when "funding and workload priorities" for new listing actions allow it.

But a news release from Western Watersheds Project claims the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior violated the ESA and the Administrative Procedure Act by finding that the listing of greater sage grouse is "precluded."

"The Obama administration rightfully concluded that the greater sage grouse fully qualify for the protections of the Endangered Species Act," stated Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. "Unfortunately, the administration has violated the law in not listing sage-grouse at the same time."

The greater sage grouse is a large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling bird, up to 30 inches long and 2 feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds. It has a long, pointed tail with legs feathered to the base of the toes. Females are a mottled brown, black and white. Males are larger and have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on their breasts, which they inflate during their mating display.

The birds are found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to more than 9,000 feet and are dependent on sagebrush for food and cover.

Today, greater sage grouse can be found in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming. The bird is also present in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Locally, greater sage grouse inhabit rolling sagebrush uplands stretching from the Bellevue Triangle south toward Twin Falls and in open lands surrounding the communities of Carey and Arco. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that greater sage grouse occupy only 56 percent of their historical range.

If current downward trends persist, many localized sage grouse populations could disappear in the next several decades, with the remaining fragmented population vulnerable to extinction, information from the Fish and Wildlife Service indicates.

Idaho biologists have attributed the bird's declining numbers in the state to the West Nile virus and the severity of large fires in recent years—most notably the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire that burned 600,000 acres critical to sage grouse south of Twin Falls.

Western Watersheds Project contends that efforts by nonprofit groups and state wildlife agencies such as the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to conserve the species' remaining sagebrush habitat and stop the bird's declining numbers are failing. The organization has filed numerous legal challenges to protect sage grouse and the species' vast sagebrush habitat, which some have dubbed the "sagebrush sea."

"The ever-growing effects of development of the sagebrush sea will doom sage grouse without the mandatory protection provided by listing the species under the protections of the Endangered Species Act," stated Laird Lucas, executive director of Advocates for the West, in the press release.

The Boise-based legal advocacy firm is representing Western Watersheds Project in the sage-grouse litigation.

One of a suite of sagebrush-obligate species that includes pygmy rabbits, greater sage grouse are particularly vulnerable to loss and alteration of sagebrush-steppe habitats. Factors that have been attributed to the continuing decline of the chicken-sized bird include widespread infestations of noxious weeds, livestock grazing, more frequent and larger wildfires and extensive oil and gas development.

Jason Kauffman: jkauffman@mtexpress.com




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