A Delicate Dance

Conservation efforts kept the bistate sage grouse off the Endangered Species List. Will they work for the rest of the grouses?

Photo: Jeannie Stafford/USFS

The birds that fly over Nevada rancher Dick Hunstberger’s head as he goes about his chores are hard to ignore—especially the males. Great sage grouse, after all, have evolved to attract attention. This iconic species of the West is famous for its flamboyant mating ritual. In the spring, males of the large, chicken-like species gather every day for about two months on their traditional dancing grounds. In the hope to woo females, these avian suitors strut with their chests puffed and spiky tails spread, emitting loud “booms” that can travel for more than a mile. After the picky hens select a mate and do the deed (termed a “cloacal kiss,” which lasts mere seconds), they nest on the ground, under the protective cover of sagebrush.

Like all greater sage grouse, the birds in Hunstberger’s backyard, in Desert Creek, a valley in the Sierra Nevada, depend on sweeping expanses of sagebrush. The aromatic vegetation is critical for nesting and raising young, and come winter, the birds subsist solely on the toxin-laden plants. But there is something unique about these particular birds: They’re members of a small, distinct population of greater sage grouse that straddles the border between Nevada and California.

And a couple years ago, federal scientists realized they were in trouble. In October 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bistate population—an estimated 2,500 to 9,000 birds that inhabit about 4.5 million acres of high-desert sagebrush—as threatened. The service cited the loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat due to development, conifer encroachment, and increasing wildfires as reasons for the bird’s decline.

The possibility that the bird would be put on the Endangered Species List was not welcome news to Huntsberger and other ranchers. At the time, he’d already been working for more than a decade with a diverse group of Westerners to improve sage grouse habitat. Their aim was to put enough voluntary conservation efforts in place to keep a listing at bay. A listing, he feared, would bring more land-use restrictions that would make it harder “to get these things done.” The strategy is also a kind of insurance plan: In exchange for adopting a legally binding plan to protect greater sage grouse now, landowners won't be required to leap through additional hoops should the bird be listed later.

It paid off: Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the bistate sage grouse doesn’t require federal protection, noting “the extraordinary efforts” to address threats played a role in the federal biologists’ determination.

Many now wonder whether the bistate decision hints at a larger one, due September 30, on whether to declare the greater sage grouse threatened or endangered in 11 Western states. Ranchers across the region aren’t the only ones anxious about the call; wind energy, oil, and gas producers, and other commercial operators say listing the bird would restrict their operations and hurt their bottom lines.

This bistate decision is good news, says Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst for NRDC (disclaimer). He’s heartened to see the administration move forward with conservation plans that will help save the bird without necessarily having to list it. Still, he added, “I really see these plans as the floor, not the ceiling. There’s a lot of work yet to do.”

Other groups say the government’s move will likely trigger a legal challenge. “The facts and the science are crystal clear: There is a significant threat of extinction,” says Erik Molvar, the Sagebrush Sea campaign director for WildEarth Guardians.

Jewell says investments made to implement a 2012 action plan, crafted by landowners, conservation groups, and scientists from universities and government agencies, helped drive the decision to forgo the bistate listing. So far the working group has secured $45 million to implement 80 science-driven projects aimed at conserving sagebrush-steppe habitat. Already the projects have removed juniper and pinyon pine from 4,000 acres of important sagebrush territory on private lands and protected 7,300 acres of the bird’s summering habitat through conservation easements.

Only about 8 percent of bistate sage grouse habitat is on private land, but it’s a quality-versus-quantity situation, says Thad Heater, a wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for Nevada. “The percentage is small, but the limited amounts of private land have key components, like water sources and meadows where sage grouse like to rear broods.”

In 2013 Huntsberger joined forces with the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to remove juniper from more than 1,000 acres of his allotments. These conifers are native to this West, but their slow creep to lower elevations is gobbling up sagebrush and providing kindling for wildfires. “The range is healthier,” he says, now that the juniper is gone, but he notes that it’s too soon to tell if its removal is boosting sage grouse numbers.

When the 24,000-acre Bison Fire blazed through the region in 2013, the absence of juniper proved beneficial. “The fire literally burned just to the treatment area,” says Heater. “It was a raging wildfire right up till it hit the edge, then it stopped.” 

Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS

So intensified conservation work kept the greater sage grouse off the list in Nevada and California. Will it do so for the rest of country? The bird’s habitat spans 186 million acres across 11 states, from North Dakota to Washington down to Southern California and east to Colorado. Just as Huntsberger has done, landowners throughout the range have been partnering with state and federal agencies to help save the grouse in order to and avoid a threatened or endangered listing.

Congress, meanwhile, is still itching to pass legislative end-runs around the Endangered Species Act that would preclude the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the bird. Yesterday, for instance, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner introduced a bill in Congress that would prevent the federal government from listing greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened for six years, allowing states more time to try to boost bird numbers. A listing, Gardner told the Denver Post, would be economically devastating for the agriculture, energy, and recreation industries.

Such legislation could hinder the sage grouse conservation efforts underway across the West. “This Congress has a deserved reputation as the do-nothing Congress, and now Senator Gardner is literally telling the federal agencies to do nothing on sage grouse," says NRDC's McEnaney. "Allowing the states to stick their proverbial heads in the sand as policy, does not make a recovery plan for grouse.”  

While the bistate listing decision is separate from the region-wide determination due in the fall, yesterday Secretary Jewell did, intriguingly, say, “The collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development.” 

Is that a hint? We’ll find out in September. 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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