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Endangered Species: Greater Sage Grouse
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Endangered species
Last Dance?

With its long, pointed tail plumage flared, its chest puffed, and its head held high, the male greater sage grouse struts and dances, displaying his best colors and choreography to impress his mate. But the cocksure pose seems at odds with the bird’s predicament in Wyoming, where it is competing for land with ranching, energy, and residential development.

The latest twist occurred last December, when U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill rejected a 2005 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision not to list the bird as endangered. He ruled that the agency based its opinion on faulty science, deferring to oil and gas interests. The judge also ordered the FWS to begin a 12-month review of sage grouse populations across the species’ entire U.S. range and to reconsider its endangered status with new, peer-reviewed data.

Although biologists at Wyoming Game and Fish estimate that 140,000 sage grouse remain in Wyoming, the population has plummeted by 70 percent since the 1960s. Brian Rutledge, Audubon Wyoming’s executive director, attributes much of the recent decline to the most immediate threat: the energy industry’s heavy footprint across the bird’s sagebrush habitat, particularly the massive coal-bed methane fields that have consumed broad swaths of the landscape in recent years. “As the drilling expands, we find the energy infrastructure eclipsing more and more populations of grouse,” says Rutledge. “So what we’ve got to do is slow down leasing on gas development and establish refuges for the bird.”

Unfortunately, the feverish pace hasn’t let up since the judge’s ruling. In December alone, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auctioned off 195 parcels totaling more than 184,000 acres (approximately 288 square miles) in oil and gas leases in Wyoming—mostly to out-of-state energy companies. Recently, Audubon Wyoming established the Sagebrush Institute, a coalition of scientists and organizations whose mission is to study the threats facing the sagebrush ecosystem. Recently, for example, using geographic information system (GIS) technology, Audubon Wyoming was able to identify 18 gas and oil leases, set to be auctioned off in February, that would have wiped out critical nesting grounds. It presented this new data to managers at the FWS and the BLM, and filed protests against the auctions. As Audubon went to press, the BLM was still deciding whether to pull the parcels.

Rutledge believes the new research’s focus will “give managing agencies a better chance to do their jobs. This gives [the BLM and the FWS] little opportunity to say they didn’t know about the impact, and us little excuse to say we’re not being heard.”

John Emmerich, deputy director of Wyoming Fish and Game, says new mapping strategies for seasonal distributions of the grouse will guide officials on how to proceed, but he admits that protection strategies are being balanced with energy interests. “I think everyone agrees, there are some negative impacts associated with high-density [energy] development,” he says. “But that’s part of the overall equation—to find ways to manage sage grouse while accommodating responsible energy development.”

A more accurate picture of the sage grouse’s situation is bound to emerge in the next year, courtesy of Judge Winmill’s ruling, which requires the FWS to take a fresh look at the bird’s status. In the meantime, the grouse’s ultimate fate will rest with the BLM. “The [Endangered Species Act] listing is contingent on whether the BLM changes the way they’re doing business,” says Rutledge. “It’s up to them. Do it right, and we may be able to avoid a listing.”—Shawn Query

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