Greater sage-grouse: Will this icon of the American West survive?

Sage grouse. Photo by Albert Dickson.

The greater sage-grouse — a once abundant bird in Colorado and throughout the West — is declining at an unprecedented rate. Numerous threats, including expansive energy development, continue to severely impact the sage-grouse and its habitat. Because of these rapid declines, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will decide in March whether to protect the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

We have come to the tipping point, where decisions must be made and actions must be taken to ensure protection for the sage-grouse and the estimated 350 species that also depend on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem. Conserving this important sagebrush ecosystem also benefits many western rural communities who make considerable revenue from big game hunting and wildlife viewing each fall.

Here are just a few of the stats that show we have no time to spare:

  • It is estimated that at one time there were nearly 2 million greater sage-grouse occupying the 13 western states that comprised its range. Today, the USFWS estimates that that number has declined between 69 and 99 percent.
  • In Colorado, the sage-grouse has already disappeared from four counties where it was once found, and a recent count of the Meeker-White River population in Rio Blanco county found as few as six male birds remaining from this once vibrant population.

Why are Sage-Grouse Disappearing?

The chief problem the species faces is the continuing loss of its sagebrush habitat, of which the grouse need vast, intact tracts to survive. Oil and gas development, sprawl, and the introduction of noxious weeds such as cheatgrass have had profound detrimental effects on sage-grouse and their important habitats to the point where around 45% of the area identified as potential sagebrush habitat in 1970 is now devoid of sagebrush. In the Greater Dinosaur Region of Northwest Colorado — home to two-thirds of Colorado’s remaining sage-grouse population — rapid oil and gas expansion and fragmentation of habitat threaten to imperil this species even further in coming years.

Solutions

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently revising its management plan for millions of acres of public lands in the Little Snake Resource Area of Northwest Colorado. The outcome of this process will have major implications for how the region’s wildlands and wildlife habitat — including high priority sage-grouse habitats — will be zoned and managed for the next 15 to 20 years, particularly with regard to oil and gas leasing and development.

The Wilderness Society continues to engage in this process to ensure that, not only will the greater sage-grouse and its habitats be given the best opportunities for recovery, but that the other invaluable natural resources of the area including wilderness-quality lands such as Vermillion Basin will be protected as well.

Sage-Grouse Viewing Trips

To learn more about the greater sage-grouse, the BLM’s management plans for the Little Snake Resource Area, or to participate in sage-grouse viewing trips in Northwest Colorado please contact:

Soren Jespersen at The Wilderness Society’s Craig, CO office — 970-824-5241.

Sage-grouse viewing trips will take place near Craig, Colo., in late March/early April.

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