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Interior Expands Common-Sense Efforts to Conserve Sage Grouse Habitat in the West Western Bird Found ‘Warranted but Precluded’  from Endangered Species Act Protection

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of the Interior will expand efforts with state, local and tribal partners to map lands that are vital to the survival of the greater sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that inhabits much of the West, while guiding and managing new conventional and renewable energy projects to reduce impacts on the species, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced today.

Salazar made the announcement in conjunction with a finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that, based on accumulated scientific data and new peer-reviewed information and analysis, the greater sage-grouse warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act but that listing the species at this time is precluded by the need to address higher priority species first. The greater sage-grouse will be placed on the candidate list for future action, meaning the species would not receive statutory protection under the ESA and states would continue to be responsible for managing the bird.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” said Salazar. “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.”

Adding the species to the candidate list will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies an opportunity to continue to work cooperatively with private landowners to conserve the candidate species. This includes financial and technical assistance, and the ability to develop conservation agreements that provide regulatory assurances to landowners who take actions to benefit the species.  One such agreement was signed last month in western Idaho, encompassing an area of over half a million acres.

“There is much we can accomplish for sage-grouse working with private landowners who care about the future of this iconic western species,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland. “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.”

Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, whose agency manages more greater sage-grouse habitat than any other government agency, said that the BLM will today issue guidance that will expand the use of new science and mapping technologies to improve land-use planning and develop additional measures to conserve sage-grouse habitat while ensuring that energy production, recreational access and other uses of federal lands continue as appropriate.  The BLM guidance also addresses a related species, the Gunnison sage-grouse, which has a more limited range, and which is in the process of being evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether it also warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“Managing for sensitive and candidate species is nothing new to the BLM,” said BLM Director Bob Abbey.  “Using sound science and effective on-the-ground coordination with our many partners, we will build on current accomplishments in managing for sustainable sage-grouse populations on our National System of Public Lands.”

The guidance, which supplements the BLM’s 2004 National Sage-Grouse Conservation Strategy, identifies management actions necessary at some sites to ensure the environmentally responsible exploration, authorization, leasing and development of energy resources in the priority habitat of greater sage-grouse.

Under the guidance, the BLM will continue to coordinate with State fish and wildlife agencies and their Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee in the development of a range-wide key habitat map. This mapping project, which is not intended to replace individual State fish and wildlife agency core habitat maps, will identify priority habitat for sage-grouse within each of the western states and reflect this across the known range of sage-grouse.

Greater sage-grouse are found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. They currently occupy approximately 56 percent of their historical range.

If trends since the mid-1960s persist, many local populations may disappear within the next 30 to 100 years, with remaining fragmented populations more vulnerable to extinction in the long-term. However, the sage-grouse population as a whole remains large enough and is distributed across such a large portion of the western United States that Fish and Wildlife Service biologists determined the needs of other species facing more immediate and severe threat of extinction must take priority for listing actions.

The Service will review the status of the species annually, as it does with all candidate species, and will propose the species for protection when funding and workload priorities for other listing actions allow.  Should the status of the greater sage-grouse sufficiently improve as a result of the efforts to be undertaken, the Service could determine that the protection of the Endangered Species Act is not needed.

__________________________________________________________

 

Questions and Answers for the Greater Sage-Grouse Status Review
__________________________________________________________

Q1: What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination regarding
the status of the greater sage-grouse?

A1: After evaluating all the available scientific and commercial
information regarding greater sage-grouse, including an analysis of the
threats to the species and sagebrush habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service has determined that protection under the Endangered Species Act
(ESA) is warranted.  However, listing the greater sage-grouse at this time
is precluded by the need to address other listings of higher priority.

The greater sage-grouse will be added to the list of candidate species
under the ESA and will be proposed for listing when funding and workload
priorities for other listing actions allow.

Q2: What information did the Service use to make this decision?

A2: The Service based its final determination on the accumulated scientific
data provided by State and Federal agencies and Tribes, as well as data and
information provided through public comments. The review of relevant
materials included 25 chapters of new information and or analyses contained
in the peer-reviewed monograph entitled: Ecology and Conservation of
Greater Sage-Grouse: A Landscape Species and Its Habitats which was edited
by the U.S Geological Survey for a forthcoming publication by the Cooper
Ornithological Society in their Studies in Avian Biology Series.
Thirty-eight scientists from federal, state, and nongovernmental
organizations collaborated to produce the analyses, synthesis, and findings
presented in the chapters of this monograph.

The Service recognizes and thanks all the States within the range of the
greater sage-grouse for their contributions to our knowledge of greater
sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat.

Q3: During the previous Administration, the Service determined that the
greater sage-grouse did not warrant proposal for listing.  What are the
principal reasons why FWS has now reached the opposite conclusion?

A3:  Since our 2005 status review, a significant amount of new science is
available concerning the status of the species and the effects of different
land uses on the species’ survival, including new information obtained from
the Cooper Ornithological Society Monograph chapters the Service received
in pre-publication form in 2008 and 2009.   This information contained
extensive scientific analysis that integrated the species’ ecology with
existing land uses and clearly documented that certain factors occurring on
the landscape result in population declines and population extinctions.


Q4: If protecting the sage-grouse is warranted, why is taking action on the
sage- grouse a lower priority than for other species? What criteria did the
Service use to determine this lower priority?

A4: In order to make the most effective use of its limited resources for
listing species under the ESA, the Service has developed a priority system
designed to direct its efforts towards the plants and animals in greatest
need of protection. Candidate species are assigned a priority number from 1
to 12, with 1 being the highest priority, based on multiple criteria. The
magnitude of threat is the most important consideration, followed by the
immediacy of the threat and the taxonomic distinctiveness of the species
(the most distinctive is a monotypic genus, then a full species, and lastly
a subspecies, variety or vertebrate population).

The greater sage-grouse population as a whole remains large enough and is
distributed across such a large portion of the western United States that
the immediate threat of extinction is low. The Service has assigned it a
listing priority number of 8, which indicated relatively lower priority
when compared with most of the species on the candidate list. As a result,
the needs of other species facing more immediate and severe threat of
extinction must take priority for preparing listing proposals.

Q5: How many species are currently on the candidate list? How many
candidate species will be addressed in the coming year?

A5: Currently, 249 species are candidates for listing, and due to pending
petitions to list several hundred additional species, this number may
increase by FY 2011. Despite this potential increase, the Service
anticipates that the number of candidates in FY 2010 will decrease to
approximately 186. This decrease is anticipated as the Listing Program
completes proposed rules to list species or determinations that listing is
not warranted in FY 2010.

Q6: Given how many species will remain on the candidate list after 2011,
how long is it likely to be before the sage-grouse will be proposed for
protection under the ESA?

A6: The Service has been making steady progress in recent years to prepare
listing proposals for candidate species.  In any given fiscal year,
multiple factors dictate how much work the Service can undertake to prepare
proposed listing documents.  The resources available for listing actions
are determined through the annual Congressional appropriations process.
The number of listing actions the Service can undertake also is influenced
by the complexity of those actions, which can vary widely.  Thus, it is
difficult to predict how long it might be before the Service prepares a
proposed rule for the greater sage-grouse.  We will, however, review its
status annually and work with States, other Federal agencies, private
landowners, and other partners to step up efforts to conserve the species.

Q7: Is it possible that, before the sage-grouse is actually proposed for
listing, the Service might decide that it no longer warrants proposed
listing, and if so, what would have to happen for that to be the case?

A7: Yes, it is possible that the Service might decide the greater
sage-grouse no longer warrants listing.  The Service is required to
annually update a finding that a species is warranted but precluded for
listing.  During that process, we consider new information that becomes
available about the species and its status, including new information about
its biology, threats and their estimated impact and estimated risk to the
species, and the effectiveness of conservation efforts.  This formal annual
process allows the Service to review the status of the greater sage-grouse
until such time as either a proposed listing rule is published or a finding
is made that listing is not warranted.

Q8: What is being done now to conserve greater sage-grouse?

A8: Concern about long-term declines in greater sage-grouse populations was
raised by State game and fish agencies more than a decade ago.  In
response, the Fish and Wildlife Service joined with the Western Association
of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), representing all of the Western
state wildlife agencies, in 2006 to develop the Greater Sage-Grouse
Comprehensive Conservation Strategy. The release of this strategy marked a
true turning point, enabling a shift from conservation planning to
conservation implementation incorporating adaptive management principles to
inform and guide future management practices.

In order to begin implementing the conservation strategy – which is aimed
at jointly conserving and managing sagebrush habitat for the benefit of
greater sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species – WAFWA and
federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest
Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation
Service, U.S. Geological Survey and Farm Services Agency joined together
under a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in 2008.

As a result of these steps, Western states have begun to implement
significant sage-grouse conservation efforts within their own borders. For
example, in Wyoming, the state has developed the Wyoming sage grouse core
area conservation strategy. This important strategy is designed to ensure a
population objective of maintaining up to 80 percent of the breeding
sage-grouse in the State. The state of Montana has developed a Management
Plan and Conservation Strategies to direct sage-grouse management in the
State.  Montana has also developed a State core area strategy to focus
management, and is developing an off-site mitigation and compensation
system for sage-grouse. In addition, the state is supporting research on
grazing strategies in sage-grouse habitats in coordination with University
of Montana and NRCS. And in Idaho, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the
Idaho Department of Fish and Game recently finalized the first ever CCAA
(candidate conservation agreement with assurances) for the greater
sage-grouse. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations allow for these
agreements to be developed for potential candidate species. These are just
a few examples of widespread actions being implemented to benefit the
greater sage-grouse.

Q9: What is a candidate species?

A9: Candidate species are plants and animals for which the Service has
sufficient information on their biological status and threats to propose
them for listing as endangered or threatened under the ESA, but for which
development of a proposed listing regulation is precluded by higher
priority listing actions to address species in greater need.

Candidate species receive no statutory protection under the ESA. The
Service encourages voluntary cooperative conservation efforts for these
species because they are, by definition, species that warrant future
protection under the ESA.

Q10: What conservation actions are encouraged for candidate species?

A10: Effective conservation actions for candidate species require a means
of addressing immediate, long-term, and identifiable threats.  Depending on
the threats in a local area, specific on-the-ground activities could
include: increasing the size of buffer zones around various types of
development activities, such as oil and gas development; removal of
pinyon-juniper woodland in areas where it is encroaching on sagebrush
habitat important to greater sage-grouse, protecting riparian (streamside)
or other moist areas from inappropriate levels of livestock grazing or
other activities which impact habitat important for brood-rearing by
greater sage-grouse, and a variety of habitat restoration or protection
measures to reduce habitat fragmentation and maintain or restore habitat
connectivity.  These and other types of conservation actions maximize
management options for landowners and for the species, minimize the cost of
recovery, and reduce the potential for restrictive land use policies that
may be necessary in the future if listing occurs. Addressing the needs of
species before the regulatory requirements associated with listed species
come into play often allows greater management flexibility to stabilize or
restore these species and their habitats. Ideally, sufficient threats can
be removed to eliminate the need for listing. State agencies and the
Service offer technical expertise and provide funding for conservation of
candidate and other species at-risk.

Q11: What tools are available for candidate species?

A11: The Service and other federal partners have greater ability to provide
technical and financial assistance for conservation of candidate species on
private land. The Service provides financial and technical assistance to
landowners seeking to conserve candidate species on their land through its
Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.  Additional financial assistance is
available through various Service grants and agreements, as well as through
Farm Bill and Department of Defense programs. In addition, the Service has
the ability to take advantage of the additional management flexibility
afforded to candidate species by facilitating development and
implementation of Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs) and Candidate
Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs).

CCAs are formal, voluntary agreements between the Service and one or more
parties to address the conservation needs of one or more candidate species.
Participants voluntarily commit to implement specific actions designed to
remove or reduce threats to the covered species.  CCAs can involve both
federal and non-federal lands.  In some cases, these agreements have been
so successful that listing the species proved to be unnecessary. For
non-federal landowners seeking regulatory assurances, CCAAs are an
effective tool. A CCAA provides participating property owners with a permit
containing assurances that if they engage in certain conservation actions
for species included in the agreement, they will not be required to
implement additional conservation measures beyond those in the CCAA in the
event the species becomes listed. Also, additional land, water, or resource
use limitations will not be imposed on them should the species become
listed in the future, unless they consent to the change. For additional
information on these tools, see
http://www.fws.gov/endangered/landowner/index.html.


Q12: Why did the Service conduct a range-wide status review of the greater
sage-grouse?

A12: The Service was sued by Western Watersheds Project on the merits of
the 2005 finding which determined that listing the greater sage-grouse was
not warranted based on the scientific information available at that time.
In a stipulated agreement with the plaintiffs, we agreed to submit a new
finding to the Federal Register by February 26, 2010; by mutual agreement
and with approval of the involved court.  That date was extended by one
week to March 5, 2010.

Q13: What is a status review?

A13: A status review is an in-depth examination of all the scientific
information relating to a species and its habitat.  It provides the basis
for making a finding as to whether listing is warranted.

The Service sought out all available scientific and commercial information
on greater sage-grouse population trends, as well as information on the
loss and modification of sagebrush habitat.  The purpose of the status
review was to determine whether the greater sage-grouse warranted listing
as endangered or threatened under the ESA.

Q14: What is a greater sage-grouse and where do they live?

A14: Greater sage-grouse are large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling birds,
up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds.
They have a long pointed tail with legs feathered to the base of the toes.
Females are a mottled brown, black, and white color.  Males are larger and
have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on
their breasts, which they inflate during their mating displays.  They are
found in 11 States:  Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah,
Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.  Small
populations are also found in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and
Saskatchewan.

Q15: How did the Service determine the extinction risk for greater
sage-grouse?

A15: A large volume of new information has been obtained, analyzed and
published in peer reviewed scientific documents since the 2005 finding.  As
a result, the causes of population declines, and the loss of greater
sage-grouse populations, are now better understood.  This new scientific
information, combined with updated information on the current status and
the known and projected uses of sagebrush habitat, was evaluated by the
Service in making the finding.

Q16: What are the primary threats to greater sage-grouse?

A16:  Fragmentation of sagebrush habitats has been cited as the primary
cause of the decline of greater sage-grouse populations.  Greater
sage-grouse are a landscape scale species, requiring large expanses of
sagebrush to meet all seasonal habitat requirements.

The Service analyzed potential factors that may affect the habitat or range
of the greater sage-grouse and determined that habitat loss and
fragmentation resulting from wildfire, invasive plants, energy development,
urbanization, agricultural conversion, and infrastructure development are
the primary threats to the species.  The negative effects of fragmentation
on greater sage-grouse are diverse and include reduced lek (courtship site)
persistence, lek attendance, winter habitat use, recruitment, yearling
annual survival, and female nest site choice.

Fire:  Fire is a primary cause of recent large-scale losses of habitat.
Fire frequencies have increased as a result of the incursion of invasive
plant species. As a result, this stressor is anticipated to increase.

Invasives:
Once established, invasive plants reduce and eliminate vegetation essential
for greater sage-grouse to use as food and cover, and facilitate a shorter
fire cycle. Techniques to control invasive plants on a landscape scale
necessary to support the greater sage-grouse are limited and have generally
been ineffective to date.

Energy Development:
Greater sage-grouse populations are negatively affected by energy
development activities (primarily oil, gas, and coal-bed methane),
especially those that degrade important sagebrush habitat, even when
mitigative measures are implemented.  Impacts can result from direct
habitat loss, fragmentation of important habitats by roads, pipelines and
powerlines, and direct human disturbance.  The negative effects of energy
development often add to the impacts from other human development,
resulting in declines in greater sage-grouse populations.

Population declines associated with energy development results from
abandonment of leks, decreased attendance at the leks that persist, lower
nest initiation, poor nest success and chick survival, decreased yearling
survival, and avoidance of energy infrastructure in important wintering
habitat. Energy exploration and development is projected to increase over
the next 20 years.

An estimated 30 percent of habitat in greater sage-grouse range has high
potential for wind power.  The effects of renewable energy development are
likely to be similar to those of nonrenewable energy as similar types of
infrastructure are required.

Urbanization:
Since 1950, the western United States has exceeded the national average in
the population growth rate, with rural areas growing faster than urban
areas in 60 percent of the counties in the Rocky Mountain States.  This
growth has led to increases in urban, suburban and rural development.  In
addition, the presence of domestic pets and predators associated with
humans (e.g. foxes, skunks, ravens) also negatively affect the greater
sage-grouse. Given the current demographic and economic trends in the Rocky
Mountain West, we believe urbanization will continue to increase, resulting
in further habitat fragmentation and degradation.

Agricultural conversion:  Greater sage-grouse become locally extinct when
the amount of tilled agriculture within an area exceeds 25 percent of the
surrounding land cover.  Agriculture also results in indirect effects to
both the sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats due to the supporting
infrastructure and the presence of human-associated predators.

Grazing:  Grazing is the most extensive land use across the range of the
greater sage-grouse.  Grazing can be managed appropriately to be compatible
with conservation of the sage-grouse.  We caution that the removal of
sagebrush to promote forage production is not compatible with greater
sage-grouse conservation and should be avoided.

Infrastructure:
Infrastructure includes a broad array of structures necessary to support
most kinds of energy and human developments (e.g., powerlines, pipelines,
fences and roads).  As an example, powerlines can directly affect greater
sage-grouse by posing a collision and electrocution hazard and can have
indirect effects by increasing predation by providing hunting perches for
many species of raptors. Impacts from roads may include direct habitat
loss, direct mortality, barriers to migration corridors, facilitation of
predators and spread of invasive vegetative species and other indirect
impacts such as noise.

Climate Change:
Projected climate change and its associated consequences have the potential
to affect the greater sage-grouse and increase its risk of extinction as
the impacts of climate change compound the effects of other stressors
already impacting the species.

The long-term impact of climate change to greater sage-grouse is yet to be
determined.  However, changes in temperature and precipitation regimes
associate with climate change are likely to facilitate the incursion of
invasive plants and the associated changes in fire regime which currently
pose significant threats to greater sage-grouse and the sagebrush
ecosystem.

As there is some degree of uncertainty regarding the potential effects of
climate change on greater sage-grouse, climate change in and of itself was
not considered a significant factor in our determination whether greater
sage-grouse is warranted for listing.

Regulatory Mechanisms:
Federal agencies manage the majority of greater sage-grouse habitat in the
United States.  Their participation in controlling greater sage-grouse
habitat fragmentation is essential to long-term persistence. Overall, the
ability of these agencies to adequately address the issues of wildfire and
invasive plants across the landscape is limited.  However, the Service
believes a strategic conservation approach can be adopted to target the
protection of greater sage-grouse habitats from fire and other forms of
habitat loss and fragmentation.  Energy development and its associated
infrastructure are expected to continue.  Protective measures and strategic
siting of energy developments away from core sage grouse habitats are
needed to reduce this threat into the future.  Such efforts should be
undertaken in collaboration with State Wildlife agencies who will continue
to manage greater sage-grouse; and should be consistent with the Western
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 2006 Greater sage-grouse
Rangewide Conservation Strategy developed jointly by WAFWA, the Service,
Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

Q17: Is there an estimate of how many sage-grouse current exist?

A17: Population numbers are difficult to estimate due to the large range of
the species and inconsistent sampling protocols for lek surveys.  The
annual counting of males on leks remains the primary approach to monitoring
long-term trends of populations and standardized techniques are beginning
to be implemented throughout the species’ range.

Population projections suggest the population will decline across the
species’ range in coming years, and extirpation is anticipated in some
areas affected by energy development and increased wildfire frequency
within the next 30 to 100 years.  The resulting landscape will consist of
scattered sage-grouse populations across the species range with minimal, if
any, connectivity, placing the species at increasing risk of at increasing
risk of substantial decline or extirpation in additional areas.

Q18: How much sagebrush habitat is there?

A18: Current sagebrush habitat is estimated at approximately 160 million
acres – about half of the estimated historic acreage.

Q19: Is the greater sage grouse the only wildlife dependent upon sagebrush
habitats?

A19: No.  In fact, the following wildlife species are either partially or
entirely dependent upon sagebrush habitat:  Pronghorn Antelope (also
benefits from grassland habitats), the Sage Thrasher, the Gunnison
Sage-Grouse (different species found in Utah and western Colorado), the
Pygmy Rabbit, the Sage Sparrow, the Brewer's Sparrow, Ferruginous hawks,
the Loggerhead Shrike, and the White-Tailed Prairie Dog.

Q20: How will today’s action affect oil and gas development within the
range of the sage grouse?  What about wind power development and livestock
grazing?

A20: As a candidate species, the greater sage-grouse does not have any
regulatory protection.  We recommend that project proponents wanting to
conduct activities in occupied sage-grouse habitat coordinate with the
Service and the States to develop projects that are compatible with greater
sage-grouse conservation.  Oil and gas development and wind power
development is not compatible with the species unless done in a strategic
way where key habitats are conserved.  Livestock grazing can be managed in
a manner compatible with sage-grouse conservation.  Service biologists are
available to assist project proponents in developing projects that are
compatible with greater sage-grouse conservation.

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