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Group Blasts Plans to Keep Rare Bird Off Endangered List

Warning sign in Wyoming. | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The federal government's management plans to protect the greater sage grouse don't go nearly far enough to regulate the single greatest threat to the increasingly rare bird: Western livestock grazing.

That's according to a report released this week by the group Western Watersheds Project, which also says the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have created a byzantine and often conflicting set of management plans to help the grouse on 60 million acres of public lands.

"Livestock grazing is the most pervasive threat to the species across its range and is largely responsible for the peril of extinction the bird is facing," said Western Watersheds' director Travis Bruner in a press statement. "Scientists, judges, and advocates have been telling the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service that they need to adopt specific measures of protection if they are going to save the species. Why the agencies have continued to ignore this advice is a mystery, and a mistake on their part."

The report, entitled "Ignoring The Obvious: Overlooking The Role Of Livestock In The Demise of the Greater Sage-Grouse and Its Habitat," covers a confusing set of draft Resource Management Plan Amendments (DRMPAs) proposed by the BLM and USFS to regulate land use in greater sage grouse habitat. All in all, 15 draft management plans have been released to cover portions of the sage grouse's range in California and eight other western states, part of an effort to boost the bird's population so as to avoid protecting the species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The greater sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, occupies sagebrush habitats throughout the northwestern United States from Washington and Oregon through the Dakotas, and southward into Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and a sliver of northeastern California. Supremely adapted to the patchwork of shrubs and open spaces that occur naturally in sagebrush steppe, the chicken-sized bird has declined drastically from its historic numbers since the advent of livestock grazing. Extirpated from a large portion of its historic range, the grouse has been repeatedly proposed for listing under ESA -- a prospect that frightens sagebrush country ranching interests.

A male sage grouse displays during mating season.
A male sage grouse displays during mating season. | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

That's because current levels of cattle grazing and sage grouse are essentially incompatible. Cattle compete with the grouse for the grasses and herbs that make up the birds' diet in spring and summer, and trample the sagebrush that the birds rely on for food during the rest of the year. Heavy grazing also deprives the birds of vegetative cover they need to conceal their ground nests. Ranchers' fencing poses a serious threat to the grouse, who often die from impact with barbed wire, and the wallows livestock create at natural seeps and springs provide habitat for mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus, a potent threat to the grouse. And livestock spread invasive grasses such as cheatgrass, which offers little food value to the grouse but does contribute to rampant wildfires that further destroy sagebrush habitat.

According to Western Watersheds' report, cattle and grouse can coexist if ranchers take care to time grazing properly, and ensure that their livestock leave sufficient vegetation to offer food and shelter for the birds. But of the 15 DRMPAs proposed by BLM and USFS so far, says Western Watersheds, none sufficiently covers the established range of threats to the species. None of the plans cover suitable habitat in the birds' historic range from which they're been wiped out, but which could conceivably offer new places to live for a boosted grouse population. And none of the plans include measures to restore sagebrush habitat that had been grazed.

Further, none of the plans require that cattle be kept from eating more than 30 percent of a given landscape's annual vegetative growth or leaving less than seven inches of "stubble," measures that grouse scientists say are absolutely imperative for grouse survival in the long term.

The report does highlight some positive features of a few of the plans, including provisions for permanent retirement of grazing allotments and language that would allow keeping cattle off grouse habitat during the most critical times of year.

The measure Western Watersheds recommends most urgently is that grazing permits in grouse country, many of which are now renewed automatically without government oversight, be subject to environmental review before renewal.

"The agencies have used legislative riders on annual appropriations bills to renew grazing permits without environmental review," says the report. "For BLM allotments in sage-grouse habitat, fully 55 percent of all grazing permits have been renewed using the rider since 2004, and in some states and field offices, the percentage swells to over 70 percent."

That lack of environmental review means that no system exists to monitor the welfare of sage grouse on those parcels.

"Sage-grouse need a reprieve from yearlong, unchecked livestock grazing practices," concludes the report, "and they need it now."

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