A new study led by a U.S. Geological Survey biologist reaches a simple conclusion: Do not disturb the sage grouse.
Steve Knick's work shows that 99 percent of active leks, or breeding sites, are in areas with no more than 3 percent of the land disturbed by humans for uses such as roads, power lines, pipelines and communication towers.
In the lands around the leks that serve as nesting habitat, less than 14 percent showed any development or disturbance.
"We knew, from previously published science, that human activity affected sage grouse, but our results in this new research showed that most leks were even absent from areas that had very low levels of human activity," Knick said.
The results, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, come as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether to list the sage grouse as a threatened species. The Bureau of Land Management, which controls 50 percent of the grouse's sagebrush-steppe habitat across the West, is working on a court-ordered plan due by 2015 to protect the bird so it won't have to be listed. A sage grouse listing could restrict development, energy exploration and ranching across the West from New Mexico to Washington state.
States such as Idaho and Wyoming are working on plans of their own that they hope will replace the BLM plan and still forestall listing. And on Friday, the BLM is expected to release a recommended power line route as part of a final environmental impact statement on the 1,100-mile long Gateway West Transmission Line proposed by utilities to run across southern Idaho and Wyoming.
Knick's team compiled and analyzed map information on three-mile circles around 3,000 active leks within 355,000 square miles of historic sage grouse range.
The conclusion: This is a bird that wants to distance itself from humans and human development. Even in traditional grouse habitat, Knick's research found, construction of new cellphone towers pushed birds out.
"We're talking about a wildland species," said Jack Connelly, a sage grouse expert with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game who was not involved in the study. "This isn't a pheasant or a quail."
Connelly's own research shows that sage grouse nest farther from leks than previously known.
"It's the area around the leks that provides the critical habitat," Connelly said. "It can extend out miles."
SUPPORTS OTTER, UNDERCUTS WYOMING
Knick's study reaffirmed the importance of sagebrush to sage grouse. At least 40 percent of the landscape surrounding leks was dominated by sagebrush. All leks were in areas with few junipers or expanses of grassland. Most leks were located in areas with less than a fourth of the land used in farming.
The study did not address grazing, because the diffuse disturbance of moving livestock doesn't lend itself to map analysis.
"Part of the problem with grazing is you don't really map the effects of grazing like you do other disturbances," Knick said.
The study also affirms Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's Sage Grouse Task Force approach to conservation, which focuses the highest levels of protections in key habitats.
"That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since the governor's plan was largely built on the recommendations of Connelly and others at our Fish and Game Department with input from key stakeholders," said Tom Perry, Otter's chief counsel, who has led his sage grouse task force.
Knick also was consulted by the task force, which is made up of Fish and Game officials and representatives from business, ranching and environmental groups.
The Otter proposal designated millions of acres across southern Idaho as a Sage Grouse Management Area with three zones. In "core habitat," big infrastructure projects would be prohibited, with few exceptions.
"Important habitat" is slightly less restrictive and "general habitat" offers much more flexibility. The plan includes triggers that would require even stronger restrictions.
Knick's research could have a bigger impact on Wyoming's plan. It allows up to 5 percent disturbance in core sage grouse habitat, 2 percent more than what Knick's team says sage grouse will tolerate.
"The purpose here was not to promote one viewpoint or another," Knick said. "What is important to sage grouse is we look at the data so when we do make decisions, we can do it with a scientific foundation."
Rocky Barker: 377-6484