Category Archives: Threatened and Endangered Species

Greater sage grouse worth endangered species listing, but other species come first

There’s only so much room on the endangered species list, and greater sage grouse will have to wait in line a little longer to receive protection. A report released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares that the bird is heading towards extinction and warrants listing, but does not take priority for designation as about 250 other species are in more immediate danger.

The announcement serves notice to land managers and the energy industry to bulk up conservation efforts for the grouse, but these efforts will take place without the backing power of listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, when combined with successful state and federal strategies, hold the key to the long-term survival of the greater sage-grouse,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland in a press release.

Across the West, greater sage grouse populations dwindled to about 56 percent of their former range. In places like Wyoming’s Red Desert, key habitat for the grouse and an energy development hotspot, populations dropped 90 percent in the last 50 years, according to Lorraine Keith, public affairs officer with the Rock Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management. This 90 percent drop isn’t just because of energy development, the decline started before the energy boom, said Keith. But if the trends of the last 50 years continue, many populations will disappear in the next 30 to 100 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The downside of the ruling is that precluding the grouse from listing relies on industry and state agencies to take the necessary management steps to stop the bird’s decline, a practice which so far has left sage grouse shaking in their leks. But the ruling does make conservation efforts for the bird a priority, especially if industry would like development to continue in the West.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a press release. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources. Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort.”

Though not listed this time, the federal government has their eye on greater sage grouse. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is adding the greater sage grouse to the endangered species candidate list and will undertake annual reviews of the bird in an effort to make sure it doesn’t slip over the edge to extinction.

While not a perfect outcome for the conservation community, the ruling gives them hope for the bird. “Up to this point we’ve seen plans that predict continued sage grouse declines,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, “but hopefully this decision will be the wake-up call that’s needed to turn things around and compel corporate interests like the oil industry to start using advanced technologies to achieve major reductions in impacts on the sage grouse, other wildlife, and the American West as a whole.”

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Into the Big Empty: Wyoming’s Red Desert goes live on YouTube

Journey into Wyoming’s Red Desert, a little known wilderness the size of Denali National Park that brings the steppes of Mongolia to America’s backyard. Here, energy companies vie for the desert’s riches in a world of 50,000 pronghorn, herds of wild horses and some of the most unforgiving landscapes of the West. Come learn of this place and the struggles to protect it as you travel Into the Big Empty.


Author of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ pens book on Red Desert

The Red Desert earns some well-deserved attention in the new 412 page book Red Desert: History of a Place, written  by Annie Proulx, author of such notable works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain. The desert and Annie Proulx are featured in last month’s issue of High Country News.

I have to say that I’m thrilled there is a sizable article out there about the Red Desert. The article is beautifully written and accompanied by some of the photographs from the book, taken by Martin Stupich. While the attention to the desert is nice, Proulx seems to be coming from the perspective that the desert is a curious place, raw, unknown, not particularly beautiful and perhaps a wilderness already lost.

Take this excerpt from the HCN article:

“This is the story that Proulx tells — that writing about a third of Red Desert: History of a Place,…, was a task inspired by curiosity rather than love. That the end result, including Stupich’s photographs and contributions from a dozen Wyoming scholars on the desert’s history, geology, hydrology, plants, animals and insects, is more an elegy than a plea for conservation.”

It’s true what she says about the desert being a hard place to love. It is more awe-inspiring than anything else, partly just to think of the overwhelming amount of creatures that have adapted to live out there, including people. It’s a place you go and immediately feel vulnerable.

Proulx’s position about the desert is interesting. She almost revels in the harshness of this place and the perpetual presence of man, then docks the environmentalists for trying to paint a picture of the desert as a “calendar” destination.

“There is an air of unreality about many efforts to protect the Red Desert, perhaps because (conservationists’) reasons for wanting to save the area seem to be largely based on beauty, solace of the wild and exquisite ephemeral qualities.” (HCN, April 13, 2009)

I can see the merit of her argument, that to portray the desert as beautiful and devoid of human presence would be deceptive, but so is the other extreme. (Maybe she is trying reverse psychology to get people to care about this place.) But I do think the answer is more in the middle.

One of the biggest flaws I think the U.S. has when it comes to land management  is this separating of man from the concept of nature or wilderness. Folks from the BLM will tell you that if a place has been changed by man, it can no longer be considered for wilderness designation. This immediately puts managers in an “it’s either us or the nature” mindset, instead of figuring ways to better integrate our existence so that it doesn’t take over the environment.

The Red Desert is a land that hangs on to any change that happens to it, especially the man-made variety. (You can still see wagon ruts from people crossing the Oregon Trail.) I imagine this thinking could be part of why the environmentalists in the desert want to show all the beautiful and unspoiled areas.

In Proulx’s mind, it sounds like the desert is already gone.

‘”It’s not going to be saved. It’s not possible to save it,” Proulx says, matter-of-factly. “This is Wyoming; it’s an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We’ll see how that one goes,” she says. “I’m  not holding my breath.”‘(HCN, April 13, 2009)

Overall, it’s exciting that a place hard to love is getting some airtime and being portrayed as undeniably magnetic, even if it’s not always pretty to look at. But it can be beautiful, just as it is harsh and flawed and undeniably marked by man. And unlike Proulx, I don’t think it’s too late for the desert. It’s just hard to think that way when no one knows it exists.


Lek time for Greater Sage Grouse

Sage Grouse lek in northeast Montana. April 2008. This footage is available in full HD (1080p) from Steve Schwartze Video. 

 

As winter begins to thaw in Wyoming’s high, cold desert, male greater sage grouse strut in a tousle of fanned feathers and jiggling, yellow air sacs only a female sage grouse could love. The hollow water droplet “plops” and coos of their mating calls echo across the Red Desert landscape. As if the sight of one of these birds prancing about wasn’t enough, males gather en masse trying to outdo each other in front of the highly discriminating and perusing females.

The Red Desert is one of the last strongholds for sagebrush wildlife, including the greater sage grouse,  says Erik Molvar, executive director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. The birds face serious habitat loss and declining numbers all throughout the West — a poor sign for an animal that used to be known for its wide distribution.

_mg_0021But even though one stands a good chance of seeing the bird on a visit, Greater sage grouse are poster-animals for wildlife conservation in the Red Desert. Their numbers have fallen 90 percent in the Red Desert during the last 50 years, says Lorraine Keith, BLM public affairs officer and former sage grouse biologist in Rock Springs, Wyo. The cause of the decline is unclear, though human disturbance likely plays a significant role in their falling numbers. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently considered and rejected the bird for endangered species listing. Biologists struggle to understand just how sensitive the birds are to development, and this gaping hole makes managing the sage grouse and their environment difficult, especially with growing demand for energy development. But as biologists concentrate more efforts on monitoring population trends, the greater _mg_0162b1sage grouse is once again up for endangered species listing, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to announce a decision sometime this summer.

Stay tuned for more information on the sage grouse’s status as decision time approaches. In the meantime, you can read a current report by the Fish and Wildlife on the birds here.


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