The federal government has recently approved a state of Idaho plan to shoot or poison up to 4,000 common ravens under the guise of protecting the imperiled sage grouse. This objectionable plan diverts attention from the real issues that must be dealt with to save the grouse. Despite the false rhetoric of Idaho's proposal and environmental assessment, science has already found that predator control will not be effective to boost grouse populations, and that habitat loss and fragmentation - primarily because of poor range management and energy development - are the real causes of sage grouse declines. Killing native, migratory species should be the last option in a manager's tool bag.
These scientific conclusions have been laid out very clearly in an exhaustive and highly credible review of threats to grouse by the U.S. Geological Survey, a 2013 report titled, "Summary of Science, Activities, Programs, and Policies That Influence the Rangewide Conservation of Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)." Here are but a few of the assertions by USGS, one of the world's top science institutions, on the issue of whether or not predators pose a problem for sage grouse and on efforts to control ravens in particular: " There is little published support for predation being a limiting factor in sage grouse populations. ... Predation is not a widespread factor acting to depress sage grouse populations ... Raven removal in northeastern Nevada resulted in only short-term reductions in raven numbers, and any benefits to sage grouse populations were negated by an increase in badger predation."
There is more, but you get the gist.
When science does not support the poisoning of ravens - which, like most birds, are a protected species in this country - for sage grouse conservation, we are left to scratch our heads as to why one of our iconic species, with spiritual value to many cultures of the world, is being scapegoated, while key factors driving grouse declines remain unaddressed.
Without question, the real drivers of sage grouse declines that have led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find the species "warranted" for protection under the Endangered Species Act are the rapid and severe loss of suitable breeding habitat because of poor range management; invasive exotic grasses that cause increased fire frequency; and energy development that leads to habitat fragmentation.
Grazing is allowed on about 90 percent of federally owned grouse habitat, which contributes to the spread of exotic grasses and the conversion of sagebrush to grasslands after fires. To compound the problem, extensive wind energy and transmission line development in sagebrush habitat might soon add to the problem.
Remarkably, only 3 percent of sage grouse habitat has protections from extensive grazing or energy infrastructure development. This number needs to increase, which will require large-scale changes to sagebrush and range management plans. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are currently revising land management plans to mitigate these impacts in many western states and to apply conservation measures for the grouse based on the best available science.
Idaho needs to conduct a similar planning process for state and private lands, and work toward real solutions for sage grouse rather than pursue unproductive and objectionable paths like the raven control program. The Golden Eagle Audubon Society of SW Idaho and American Bird Conservancy recently linked this story to an online petition that had been set up to oppose Idaho's plan. Over 15,000 people from the U.S. and many other countries signed this petition. Many respondents were adamant that they would no longer spend their tourism dollars or buy agricultural products from Idaho due to their outrage over this action.
Almost all of us have had those moments after a bad decision when we ask ourselves: "What were we thinking?" Poisoning 4,000 ravens just might turn out to be one of those moments for the state of Idaho. We hope the state will drop this misguided plan and focus on the real challenge: improving protection and management of grouse habitat.
Michele Crist is president of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society in Boise. Co-author Dr. George Fenwick is president of the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C.