September 25, 2015

The science behind sage grouse conservation

by Julia Rosen

The greater sage grouse. (Credit: Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)

On Sept. 22, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the greater sage grouse — a chicken-sized bird that inhabits the open ranges of the North American West — did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. You might think that’s bad news for the grouse, but in fact, many scientists and environmental groups have said just the opposite. Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, called it “a milestone for conservation in America” when she announced the news.

That’s because of monumental efforts to save the bird on the part of federal and state governments, oil, gas, and mining companies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners. These diverse groups of people — many of whom work and live in sage grouse country — came together after the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged the bird’s imperiled status in 2010 but did not officially list it as endangered. A host of factors, including housing developments, ranching, drilling and mining operations, wind farms, wildfires and the encroachment of invasive species, have diminished and fragmented the sage grouse’s natural habitat, reducing its historic range by almost half.

If these threats to the bird’s territory had continued unabated and the Endangered Species Act had been invoked, it would have limited development and industrial activity across the 11 western states that the grouse calls home. But instead of fighting over the birds’ protection in court — as has happened with many species in the past — groups who have traditionally been on opposite sides of conservation debates decided to cooperate to save the sage grouse before push came to shove. For developers, ranchers, and energy companies, this approach offered an opportunity to prevent sweeping new regulations in the areas where they do business; for conservationists, it offered a chance to halt the decades-long decline of sage grouse populations.

So, how do managers plan to do it? With science. The government’s strategy to protect the sage grouse relies on the idea that conservation efforts should be concentrated where they will matter most. These spots were identified based on scientific surveys of bird populations — like how many males showed up to perform their fascinating mating dance at the breeding grounds (called leks) — and using radio collars that monitored the birds’ activities. The new plans, once fully implemented, should reduce human impacts across 90% of the bird’s breeding habitat.

This strategy of targeting specific areas isn’t just common sense, it’s also supported by science. Several studies used computer models to estimate where future development — of houses, oil and gas operations, and renewable energy farms — might take place. Then, researchers looked at bird behavior to determine how these developments will affect sage grouse. They considered several possible conservation scenarios for Wyoming, where 37% of the birds live, and found that protecting core habitats could reduce future population losses by half. Another study, however, highlighted the importance of maintaining connections between these areas to prevent individual groups of grouse from becoming isolated.

Within core areas, managers can also use a scientific understanding of the sage grouse’s environment to guide their conservation activities. One study demonstrated that different sagebrush ecosystems (for example, cold, moist sagebrush ecosystems in Montana and warm, dry ecosystems in Nevada) respond very differently to wildfire and the introduction of invasive species. Therefore, the authors recommended that managers focus efforts to suppress fires and remove non-native plants in the most vulnerable places that host high bird populations. If lost, these would be the hardest to get back.

Plans to protect the greater sage grouse (GRSG) focus on specific areas within its range (shaded areas) where conservation efforts will have the most effect. (Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

But the science isn’t done just because a decision has been made. It will take many future studies to determine whether the new plans are working. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that it will review the status of the sage grouse again in 5 years to see if conservation measured have had a positive effect.

Of course, not everyone agrees that they will. Some conservation groups have already threatened to sue the government to get the bird the stricter protections they believe it needs. Others, in contrast, say that the new rules — provisions for keeping the bird off the Endangered Species List and sparing states the stringent regulations that would follow — are still too harsh, and will stifle economic activity in some western states.

One thing, however, is clear. The fate of the sage grouse will largely determine the fate of the entire sagebrush ecosystem, which covers 153 million acres of increasingly less empty land. The “sagebrush sea,” as it’s sometimes called, is also home to pronghorn, mule deer, and golden eagles, all of whom will benefit from efforts to preserve the small, strutting sage grouse.


Learn about another conservation effort–to save endangered jaguars–in our profile of conservation biologist Sergio Avila.

Watch Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell explain why the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to add the Greater Sage Grouse to the Endangered Species List.

Learn more from the Fish and Wildlife Service about the vast sagebrush sea that covers much of the American West.

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Written by

Julia Rosen is a freelance science writer and PhD student at Oregon State University. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University before beginning her doctoral research on polar ice cores and climate change. In between, she did her “Master's” in backpacking around the world and skiing. Julia is a periodic contributor to Oregon State’s research magazine, Terra, and helps write blog content and develop learning modules for Visionlearning.

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