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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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