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The federal government decided in September 2015 not to list the sage-grouse as an endangered species.
Since then, Idaho’s sage-grouse numbers have dropped 52%.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made that decision at a time when sage-grouse numbers were climbing in Idaho and other states. But following a 2016 population peak, the numbers have dropped annually in Idaho and other states, according to wildlife biologists.
Whether this decline is part of a cyclical pattern or indicative of a more serious systemic problem is not yet known, but this three-year decrease could force state and federal wildlife and land managers to take a closer look at just how well sage-grouse are faring.
Sage-grouse are found only in the sagebrush steppe, which is like a miniature old-growth forest, only with sagebrush instead of trees. The birds are entirely dependent upon the plant for which they are named. When the sagebrush ecosystem thrives, the bird thrives. When the ecosystem flounders, so does the bird.
“The ‘canary in the coal mine’ was never just about the canary,” said John Robison, public lands director for Idaho Conservation League, one of several conservation groups keeping tabs on Idaho’s sage grouse.
“These numbers should alarm everyone who values healthy rangelands, including sportsmen, ranchers, conservationists, local businesses and rural counties,” he said of the declining population numbers.
Sage-grouse by the numbers
Current population estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 birds, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
Sage-grouse have been deemed extirpated, or eliminated, in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Scant numbers remain in California, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington.
The only states with any statistically significant populations are Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Colorado.
The reasons for sage-grouse’s decline are myriad. Wildfire, weather, invasive plants and livestock grazing are commonly cited, but in the last few decades, roads, oil, gas, wind and other energy projects, pipelines and other infrastructure development have encroached upon the sagebrush steppe. Sage-grouse now occupy about half of their historical range. In addition, West Nile virus has taken a toll on sage-grouse and other avian species.
No single factor can be attributed to sage-grouse decline and no single “silver bullet” will replenish the species, Idaho Fish and Game biologist Ann Moser explained.
Two of the nation’s leading sage-grouse biologists, Edward O. Garton, a University of Idaho emeritus professor, and John W. Connelly, a now-retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist, have led studies documenting and analyzing sage-grouse populations.
Biologists monitor sage-grouse populations each spring by counting breeding male birds at grouse-mating sites, called leks.
A study released April 2015 found that from 2007 to 2013, the number of breeding males counted at leks in 11 states had a 56 percent decrease, from 109,990 male birds to 48,641. The report noted that “sage-grouse populations across the range are declining even faster than the best models forecast for this past six years.”
“Our research should and must ring alarm bells,” Garton said at the time. “These numbers indicate to us that if significant protections aren’t established, this important bird and the entire sagebrush steppe region face irreparable harm.”
Five months later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the sage-grouse as endangered, saying ongoing conservation efforts were working and the listing was no longer warranted under the Endangered Species Act.
“Despite long-term population declines, sage-grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173-million acre range,” states a Sept. 2, 2015, U.S. Dept. of Interior news release. “After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information and taking into account ongoing key conservation efforts and their projected benefits, the FWS has determined the bird does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future and therefore does not need protection under the ESA.”
But the Fish and Wildlife Service did not permanently shut the door. “The FWS has committed to monitoring all of the continuing efforts and population trends, as well as to reevaluating the status of the species in five years,” it said at the time. That five-year point arrives next year, but that promise was made under a different administration.
Idaho sage-grouse numbers did climb from 2014 to 2016, but have dropped since then, according to Moser.
Preliminary 2019 reports show Idaho’s numbers have dropped 27% since last year and 52% since 2016, Moser said, taking Idaho’s numbers back down to the record-low levels seen in the mid-1990s.
Should Idaho worry about sage-grouse numbers?
Idaho Gov. Brad Little said more information is needed before sounding any alarms.
“Idaho Department of Fish and Game and my Office of Species Conservation are working to gather the data and information necessary to determine the cause, or causes, of the population declines,” Little told the Statesman. “I do know that sage-grouse populations can fluctuate fairly significantly from year to year for a variety of reasons.”
“However, this scenario is exactly why we developed our Idaho sage-grouse plan back in 2012,” Little continued. “In areas where we see declines, we have mechanisms in place to enhance protections while we determine what caused the problem and how best to respond.”
Not just Idaho
Idaho is not the only state to see its sage-grouse numbers peak in 2016 and then plummet over the next three years.
Of the 11 states in which sage-grouse still survive, four of them — Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming — are home to about 80% of the remaining population, according to U.S. Forest Service. Wyoming holds 37%, Montana 18% Idaho 14% and Nevada 14%.
Wyoming’s 2019 numbers are still being finalized, but are expected to drop for the third consecutive year, according to a Wyoming media report.
“In May Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s former sage grouse leader warned that low lek counts here and across other states could indicate numbers are down to a 24-year low,” WyoFile reported on Aug. 6.
Nevada saw 8% fewer males on its leks since last year, and Oregon’s population is down 25%, WyoFile reports.
Sage-grouse pull the trigger
In an effort to avoid the federal endangered species listing, in the last decade dozens of state and federal plans have been put in place along with collaborative efforts among ranchers, hunters and conservationists to increase sage-grouse population.
Under Idaho’s management plan, whenever population numbers drop to a specified level, a response is triggered.
When a trigger is tripped, land and wildlife managers work to determine the cause and an appropriate response, including possibly limiting infrastructure development, like energy projects, in the affected area.
Idaho’s federal plan comprises eight priority sage-grouse management zones, four north of the Snake River and four south of it.
Under the plan, one of the hard trigger criteria is a “20% decline in the current 3-year average of total maximum number of males counted compared to the 2011 maximum male baseline.”
Statewide, the current 3-year average is down 27% from the 2011 baseline and down 52% from the peak count in 2016.
Since the 2011 baseline population was established, Idaho had not tripped any hard triggers until last year, when two of the eight areas met the hard trigger requirement, according to Idaho Fish and Game.
“This year, our preliminary analysis indicates we will trip hard population triggers in five of the eight areas,” Moser said.
Once Idaho’s, and other states’ 2019 population numbers are finalized, each state will submit its findings to the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which will decide if any triggers have been tripped and if so, what action is warranted.
Hunters can still pull the trigger, too
While sage-grouse population decreases may trip triggers on management plans, it does not mean Idaho hunters will not be pulling any triggers this fall in their quest for sage-grouse.
Sage-grouse hunting is still allowed in Idaho, although it is at a restricted level until numbers increase.
According to IDFG, hunters harvested 2,742 sage-grouse in 2016, 2,373 in 2017 and 1,993 last year.
This year, IDFG is proposing a two-day, one-bird-per-day season in an area north of the Snake River and a seven-day, one-bird-per-day season in an area along the Idaho-Nevada border. The Fish and Game Commission will officially set the 2019 sage-grouse hunting season during its Aug. 22 meeting in Nampa.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Aug. 2 announced proposed changes to how the Forest Service manages sage grouse in Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah to allow for greater local control and flexibility.
The proposed changes to the 2015 sage grouse management plan will “take into account site-specific conditions to ensure ranchers, permittees, and industry can adapt to their local conditions rather than be forced to conform to a one-size-fits-all, national approach,” according to a Forest Service news release.
The proposed amendments are out for a 60-day public review. The Forest Service intends to issue a final decision on the amendments this fall.
In March 2019, the BLM announced it had finalized its amendments to the 2015 sage grouse conservation plan, saying the new amendments would “position state-level coalitions to move forward toward improved outcomes for the greater sage-grouse.”
“The 2019 plans significantly weaken what little protection the 2015 plans offered, so if the 2019 plans go into effect things are going to get worse,” said Scott Lake with the environmental watchdog group Western Watersheds Project.
The Forest Service’s proposed plan removes about 200,000 acres in Wyoming and Nevada from protection and eases oil and gas development requirements in some areas. The proposal keeps a no net-loss standard for critical sage grouse habitat, but removes a requirement that entities that destroy sage grouse habitat on public lands during a permitted activity improve it beyond its original state.
“The 2019 plans for both the Forest Service and BLM are essentially giveaways to industry and are not designed to protect or recover the bird,” Lake said.