Letters From the West

Protecting sage grouse core habitat strategy sound, study shows

Wyoming’s strategy of protecting the core habitat of sage grouse habitat got a scientific boost this week with a study published this week.

The study, whose head author Holly Copeland comes from the Nature Conservancy, showed that Wyoming’s conservation strategy that protects the core along with $250 million in easements could reduce sage grouse losses roughly half statewide and nearly two-thirds within sage-grouse breeding areas. Without conservation, sage-grouse populations in Wyoming will decrease the study said by 14 percent to 29 percent.

Mating ritual: A male sage grouse puffs his chest and struts in a lek. the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by 2015 whether to list the desert bird as a threatened species Provided by USGS/Matt T. Lee

Mating ritual: A male sage grouse puffs his chest and struts in a lek. Provided by USGS/Matt T. Lee

This is important for Idaho because Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed sage grouse strategy is based on Wyoming’s plan. It also provides a basis for other states like Utah and Nevada to embark in state planning as Otter has sought to encourage.

“This science is informative for the 10 other western states crafting policies to proactively conserve sage grouse and maintain healthy economies,” said David Naugle, one of the authors of the article.

A recent four-governor meeting, Otter scheduled fell though because of scheduling conflicts. But states and the federal government must act soon since U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has set 2015 as the deadline to come up with a sage grouse plan that can avert listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Such listing will complicate and perhaps limit development across millions of acres of range and farmland in 11 western states from Montana south to New Mexico.

Wyoming pt its core area policy into effect in 2008, limiting power lines, wind plants, gas drillings and road building on public lands within areas of high sage grouse population densities. The Bureau of Land Management followed suit in 2012 with its own interim plan with the same limits

The Nature Conservancy encourages conservation easements, agreements with landowners to keep lands intact and not subdivided, as a complementary strategy for privately owned habitat within the core areas.

Wyoming has always been pivotal in this issue. Thirty-seven percent of the world’s population of sage grouse inhabits the state with high oil and gas reserves, excellent potential for wind and solar development, and with surging rural growth. The Bush Administration’s unrelenting drive for oil and gas leasing in his first term destroyed tens of thousands of acres of core habitat and moved the entire West closer to sage grouse listing.

Wyoming’s policy apparently has already shown results, the study said. It documents a 40 percent reduction in public lands leased for oil and gas development within Wyoming’s sage grouse strongholds since the core policy went into effect.

The study was funded by a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant. It was published in the scientific journal, PlosOne.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West