Sage Grouse Working Groups

Posted: Jul 1, 2005
Written by: 
April Reese

Eleven western states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado

Objective: To improve sage grouse numbers and protect habitat for the bird to conserve the species and preclude the need for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Participants: Ranchers, hunters, small-business owners, wildlife biologists, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, local officials, area residents

History: A constellation of collaborative working groups have formed around the West, united by a single purpose: the conservation of the sage grouse. The decline and potential Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the iconic Western bird have prompted interests ranging from hunters to conservationists to ranchers across the region to come together locally and regionally in an attempt to keep the hammer of the ESA from falling on the sagebrush flats of the interior West.

The effort began in 1994, when state fish and wildlife agencies, along with the Western Governors Association, began a range-wide conservation effort focused on setting up local working groups in each sage grouse state. There are now about 60 sage grouse working groups in all 11 sage grouse states, from Washington to South Dakota. With about 500 landowners and myriad state and federal agencies involved, it's the largest locally driven conservation effort in history. About 70 percent of sage grouse habitat is on federal and state lands; the rest is on private land.

For now, the ESA listing that working group participants feared has been deferred. In January 2005, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) rejected petitions from environmental groups seeking federal protection for the high-desert bird, which would have applied to both public and private lands. While the USFWS determined that the bird's numbers are increasing or stabilizing in some areas, agency officials say the species could still fall below the endangered species threshold. And many working groups say they have too much time, money, and commitment invested in sage grouse conservation to stop now. They plan to press on in their efforts to bring the species back from the brink.

Accomplishments: At the National Conference for Sage-grouse Local Working Groups, held in Reno, Nevada, in February 2005, participants shared success stories and challenges. Many said they have completed or are close to completing conservation plans. Those that have seen significant progress said good communication and involvement of all interests is key to making the groups work.

Although USFWS officials say the efforts of the sage grouse working groups were not the basis for their decision not to list the species, they acknowledged that the groups have demonstrated an impressive ability to convene diverse interests relatively quickly in pursuit of a common conservation goal. The region-wide effort is proving in many cases to be a model for voluntary wildlife conservation, wildlife officials say.

The Shoshone Basin Local Working Group in southern Idaho is focusing on three Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing allotments to improve conditions for sage grouse, which are in decline on the Idaho-Nevada border. While members of the group - which was formed in 1994 by federal and state wildlife managers and members of the Pleasant Valley Grazing Association - could not come to consensus on the nature of the threats to sage grouse in the area, they decided to work on incorporating habitat restoration into livestock management. To that end, they have planted native vegetation favored by the bird, installed water pipelines and troughs to redistribute cattle and created a 2,000-acre no-grazing zone to provide a haven for the bird. The group allows for a "conservative hunting season," said group member Rich Yankey, a retired employee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Yankey characterizes the group's progress as the result of "communication, respect, and knowledge."

Praise for the multi-state effort has come from the top echelons of the federal government. At the Reno conference, Kathleen Clarke, who heads the BLM, the agency that hosts much of the remaining sage grouse habitat, said that the agency plans to work closely with the groups as BLM state offices draft guidelines for improving sage grouse conservation on the lands it administers. Of the 262 million acres managed by the BLM, about 157 million contain sage grouse habitat. Clarke's boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, called the sage grouse effort a "big success story" in an interview with OnPoint on February 14, 2005.

Challenges/constraints: While several working groups have finalized conservation plans, few have begun implementing them, and others have toiled for years without drafting a plan. Groups that do have plans in place say they're only now beginning the hardest step: implementation. And although most participants say they remain committed to sage grouse conservation, they acknowledge that removal of the immediate threat of an ESA listing could make it difficult to convince landowners to undertake on-the-ground conservation efforts.

While participants in the sage grouse working groups say they are optimistic that their efforts will eventually return the sage grouse to its former status, reaching consensus on conservation plans has been difficult.

For instance, The Northwestern Colorado Local Working Group has been together for nine years, but remains without a plan. The group, based in Moffat County—where ranching and mining dominate the local economy and much of the sage grouse habitat falls within private lands—has had difficulty bridging the gap between divergent points of view.

When sage grouse numbers in the region plummeted by 50 percent from 1980 to 1995, more than 70 concerned citizens, landowners, industry officials, and local, state, and federal government officials came together in hopes of crafting a sage grouse conservation plan. But finger-pointing won out over collaboration, and the group was unable to agree on a plan. A major problem has been lack of data, members say. Moffat County is an area of considerable vegetational, topographic, and climatic diversity, and some members were concerned that a "one-size-fits-all" approach would be applied across the landscape.

In 2001, the group agreed to launch a research project to find out more about the local sage grouse population, and will use those results to direct its conservation approach. The centerpiece of the project - which was funded by state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies, the North American Grouse Partnership and the University of Idaho - was a radio telemetry study that tracked 200 sage grouse for three years, yielding valuable information about nesting success, adult survival rates, behavior and distribution. The collaborative spirit that formed around the research project, which was designed in part by the local community, has given the group new momentum to address the sage grouse decline and continue researching local populations.

"By approaching the planning process in this manner, we were able to build trust and agreement over time," said T. Wright Dickinson, a member of the group. "We would not have had buy-in had we pushed forward a conservation plan without this information."

While sage grouse have been studied for 60 years, there are still significant gaps in the body of scientific knowledge on the birds. Two questions that remain unanswered fully are the effects of grazing and predation on sage grouse. The effects of wind and oil and gas projects, as well as the role of wildfire, also merit further study, sage grouse biologists say.

Funding is also a problem, several working group members noted. While federal grant money is available through programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Landowner Incentive Program, competition for those dollars can be fierce.

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