Tag Archives: greater sage grouse

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.


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.


A conservation victory

A natural gas pipeline surfaces just outside the Cheyenne Holiday Inn where the BLM is holding their last auction of the year, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A natural gas pipeline surfaces just outside the Cheyenne Holiday Inn where the BLM is holding their last auction of the year, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The Wyoming BLM earned a little bit of kudos from conservationists last December after they decided to withdraw more than 16,000 acres from the last auction of 2008. The withdrawn parcels included 10,000 acres in Little Mountain, one of the most southwestern regions of the Red Desert, also a previously listed Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the BLM. The decision prevents, for the time-being at least, drilling in this part of the desert considered important habitat for greater sage grouse.

Lorraine Keith, public affairs officer for the Rock Springs BLM, discusses the lease requests for the Little Mountain area south of Rock Springs, Wyo., Monday, November 17, 2008. The Little Mountain parcels were ultimately removed from the auction. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Lorraine Keith, public affairs officer for the Rock Springs BLM, discusses the lease requests for the Little Mountain area south of Rock Springs, Wyo., Monday, November 17, 2008. The Little Mountain parcels were ultimately removed from the auction. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

There were more than 125 protests filed by conservationists at the last auction. The withdrawn parcels are being reviewed, and will not be offered again unless the protests are voided and then renominated. The auction did sell leases to parcels in the Jack Morrow Hills however, one of the other hotly contested areas nominated for development.

The BLM ultimately leased more than 172,000 acres in Wyoming, earning more than $9.1 million. For more information on the lease sale, read this article from the International Business Times.


Wyoming’s Red Desert

Click the Photo to see a short movie about the Red Desert

Click the Photo to see a short movie about the Red Desert

Hi All,

Some of you may know that I’ve spent the last nine months, researching and photographing Wyoming’s Red Desert, a 6 million acre high, cold desert, that for all appearances transports the steppes of Mongolia into America’s West. This little known desert has been called the “Serengeti” of North America, with more than 50,000 desert pronghorn antelope roaming across seas of sagebrush and the United States’ largest active sand dune system.

But this specialized ecosystem is filling up as the new oil and gas boom sweeps across the West. A network of roadways and drill sites already crisscross the land, and more is expected as the BLM continues to offer new leases to the petroleum companies who seek them.

I figure now is as good a time as any to get some of this info off of the notepads and out to all of you. Over the coming months I will be bringing you updates from the field, as well as notes from my archives, photos, slideshows and other news about the Red Desert. I hope you enjoy learning about this rare and endangered place. It is my pleasure to bring you these notes from the Big Empty.

Morgan E. Heim

P.S. – The aerial photography in this piece was made possible by the gracious help of LightHawk.


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