Wise grouse struggles while BLM and states search for answers

The presence of male wise grouse is likely to decline this spring. Credit: Jenny Stafford/USFS

This article originally appeared on E&E News Greenwire.

The endangered large grouse, a popular western bird that federal and state regulators have been trying to protect for decades, may be running out of time.

Grouse populations are declining across much of the bird’s western range of 11, mostly as a result of habitat lost due to a combination of severe drought, catastrophic wildfires, and the spread of invasive plant species such as Cheaters that can overwhelm the sage ecosystem that the bird depends on for survival. .

Things are especially bad for sage grouse in parts of California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, where populations have declined — in some cases, dramatically — in the past six years, according to state and federal monitoring data.

This has once again raised concerns among wildlife biologists and land management agencies that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2015 decision that Endangered Species Act protections for wise grouse are “unjustified” could soon be reversed. State and federal agencies are focusing on this possibility, and are striving to develop and implement strategies to conserve the sage herb’s habitat and, hopefully, save the bird.

Ed Arnett, wildlife biologist and CEO of the Wildlife Society, a group of more than 11,000 wildlife professionals.

Currently, there are only about 26 million acres of primary sagebrush habitat remaining where native sagebrush is healthy and sagebrushes thrive. But that primary habitat is disappearing at a rate of about 1.3 million acres a year, said St. Stiver, coordinator of the Sagebrush Conservation Initiative at the Western Federation of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

If core habitats continue to decline at this annual rate, they will be halved, to about 13 million acres, in the next 10 years, resulting in a dire situation where they are “near end” for the ecosystem, Steffer said. .

“What you’re looking at is a functional ecosystem that, at some point in our lives, no longer exists,” he said. “I don’t know if 13 million acres is a streak in the sand, but we are getting close [at that point] for the loss of a functional ecosystem.”

“The door shuts for the protest,” said Stifer.

The bleak outlook comes as the Bureau of Land Management—which oversees 68 million acres of bird habitat, the largest number of federal agencies—works to update the Sage Grouse Management Scheme adopted in 2015 in an effort to address the deteriorating situation (Greenwire), November 19, 2021).

These 2015 plans, approved after years of work, modified 98 BLM and Forest Service land use plans to include appeal protection measures. The plans were not fully implemented before the Trump administration modified them in 2019 to allow more man-made activities in the grouse habitat. A federal judge that year banned the BLM from implementing these changes.

In addition to updating the plans, the BLM also last year began a separate analysis to assess whether a major part of an Obama-era scheme that designated 10 million acres of “sagebrush focal areas” that are essential to the bird’s survival should be restored, with stricter restrictions on activities from human made. Trump administration reviews have dropped most focal areas of sage (Greenwire, August 11, 2021).

BLM Director Tracy Stone Manning noted during a March speech to the Public Land Board, a trade group for the livestock industry, that the office’s revised approach to grouse habitat management could mean modifying grazing practices to protect the best pastures, such as those containing meadows that are considered Extremely important for hens and chicks’ nests.

One of its top priorities for the BLM is to adopt practices that make landscapes more “resilient” to the effects of climate change, such as drought. But she also assured them that this would be done in consultation with all stakeholders, with the higher goal of avoiding the need to enumerate the judicious invocation of ESA protection.

“Let me say it out loud again,” said Stone Manning: “The last thing we want is to narrate the Greater Grouse, which is why we all work so hard.”

An increasing number of sage grouse experts are not sure that they can still prevent ESA protection for the bird.

“Long-term trends are down; there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” said Jack Connelly, a retired principal wildlife research biologist at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Idaho and considered by many to be a wise grouse expert.

“What I would like to hear from these agencies is what are they going to do about it?” Connelly said. “What kinds of plans will you implement that will have an impact?”

Connelly said his skepticism is rooted in the fact that “there is no track record of success within the BLM, or any state and federal agency at this point, in terms of managing wise grouse.”

He said it was up to various state wildlife agencies to manage the welfare of wise grouse, the BLM and other federal agencies to protect the bird’s habitat, “both of which are failing.”

“But we cannot give up,” he added. “We can’t get away from this.”

The situation “looks very ugly” this spring

There was a time, more than 200 years ago, when the greater grouse—first described by Merryweather Lewis and William Clark during their 1804 expedition—bloomed with an estimated population of more than a million birds.

There are at least 200,000 birds left today.

Federal and state wildlife biologists currently have the daunting task of counting male grouse in sage bird breeding grounds, called lakes, across the west and analyzing the data collected.

Daley Edmonds, director of policy and communications for the Audubon Rockies in Fort Collins, Colo., said there likely won’t be any confirmed data on male Lake attendance this spring “for several months, at the earliest.”

Calculating the presence of males at active balls is an accurate measure of grouse groups because males avoid taking cover from predators while performing an elaborate mating dance this time each year. This makes it easy to count them.

Early reports from the field are not encouraging.

“It looks pretty ugly out there so far this spring from what I’m hearing,” said Arnett of The Wildlife Society.

“I really don’t expect the numbers to go up that much this year; I expect the same story, the same report they’re dismissing,” Connelly added.

Bob Budd, who heads the Wyoming Republican Governor Mark Gordon’s appeal execution team, which helps direct the state’s administration of the bird, admitted that they find some problems with the male lake’s declining population.

“There’s no good news,” Budd said, “but until we see what the numbers really are this spring, they’re completely speculative.”

Most sage grouse experts and land managers focus on Wyoming, which is home to more than a third of North America’s remaining sage grouse population—more than any other state.

Sage grouse numbers have been in decline in Cowboy since 2016. Male lake attendance fell 13 percent in 2021, compared to the previous year, according to an analysis by the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game released last September.

A similar trend is emerging in other parts of the West.

Nevada, as part of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Program, released a report in December that showed the average attendance rate for males in the breeding grounds they surveyed was just 11.2 per lek in 2021 — 41 percent lower than the 20-year average of 19.1 males. per lek between 2000-2020.

What’s more, the Nevada Wildlife Service reported that in “mainstream” — breeding grounds that biologists conducted several times in the spring, rather than once a year, to better gauge population trends — average male attendance rates were lower. From 10 males to each lake.

“Lick’s 2021 attendance rate represents the lowest attendance rate ever recorded,” the report said.

He blamed “habitat loss from wildfires, invasive species and habitat fragmentation” as “the biggest contributors to population decline”.

In Utah, the state’s Department of Wildlife Resources determined that the average rate of males per lek last year was just 11.6, which ranked among the lowest in nearly 20 years, according to its annual population report released in October.

In Oregon, male attendance increased slightly in 2021, as it did in 2020, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded in a September report. But those gains were very modest after a disastrous 2019 in which the statewide male LEC attendance rate was “the lowest recorded in state history.”

The report concluded that “the lack of a sharp recovery following the historic low population estimate for 2019 calls for serious concern for Oregon’s wise grouse population.”

Searching for “the light at the end of the tunnel”

The state’s alarming numbers mirror findings from two USGS studies last year that showed sage grouse is suffering.

The first study found that millions of acres of priority sage bird habitat have been destroyed in the past two decades, in large part due to wildfires (E&E News PM, March 17, 2021).

The second study found that nearly 40 percent of grouse birds across their range have declined, in some cases significantly, since 2002 (E&E News PM, March 30, 2021).

These numbers are consistent with the BLM’s Five-Year Monitoring Report released last fall.

The report, which focused on priority sagebrush habitat in the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin regions, estimated that about 1.9 million acres of sagebrush, or 3 percent of the sagebrush bush in both regions, were lost between 2012 and 2018. Most habitat lost – 1.1 Million acres – was on land managed by BLM.

“Forest fires accounted for approximately 72 percent of sage plant loss in both regions,” the report stated, but were responsible for 87 percent of habitat loss in the Great Basin region.

The BLM says that the data in its monitoring report, along with findings in the two USGS-led studies, “emphasize the urgent need to expand ongoing efforts to conserve currently functional habitats and restore currently degraded habitats.”

Stiver and his colleagues at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies are working on a possible plan to save the last habitat of sage.

They are coordinating with FWS, BLM, Nature Conservancy and others to draw the boundaries of the core area, as well as sagebrushes that are damaged but can recover with restoration work.

The goal of the Landscape Conservation Design Model is to develop policies to protect designated core areas by limiting human-made activities and removing invasive plant species, Stever said. It’s also designed to direct restoration funding to parcels that can be restored and not waste resources on burned and “hopeless” habitats, he said.

“We have to protect all of our good citizens, and we have to put in a great deal of effort to make sure these areas stay in good shape,” said Stiver.

All too often, state and federal funds and resources have been wasted trying to restore scorched landscapes and grouse habitats in heavily developed areas, Steffer et al. say, and there is much less potential for wise grouse to return.

“There is already light at the end of the tunnel if we can move a million acres a year to the core, and we don’t lose out anymore,” he said.

If this is done, he said, the wise grouse has a good chance not only to survive, but also to thrive.

“We know we can do it; all is not lost. But we need to go in that direction. And fast.”

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