Sage grouse, prairie chicken — or royal pain in the neck. Call it what you like, but this bird might soon become the spotted owl of Western rangelands. Designation of sage grouse habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) could bring grazing to its knees in large areas of the Intermountain West and Northern Great Plains.

“Livestock grazing and other activities, as currently managed, are degrading sage grouse habitat and threatening this species with possible extinction,” says Mark Salvo, Portland, OR. He's grasslands and deserts advocate for American Lands Alliance and coordinates the sage grouse conservation project for several environmental organizations.

“We're pessimistic that most cattle operations in the West can co-exist with sage grouse,” adds Salvo. “Grazing and other activities ought to be reduced or eliminated to protect sage grouse and other sagebrush obligate species.”

Three Listing Petitions

Petitions have been submitted by environmental organizations to list as endangered three populations of sage grouse under the ESA. While listing petitions have not been filed for other sage grouse populations, environmental groups are closely watching bird numbers for other listing possibilities.

Historic sage grouse populations are unknown, but recent (1980 to present) declines are estimated to be in the range of 35-80%. Listing petitions estimate the size of the breeding population to be in excess of 140,000 individuals scattered across rangelands in two Canadian provinces and 11 Western states.

In response to the listing petitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has issued “warranted but precluded” findings for the Washington State population of greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as well as its less widespread cousin, the Gunnison sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus). The latter is found in southwestern Colorado and a neighboring sliver of Utah. In both those cases, petitioning organizations are now suing FWS to gain endangered status under the ESA.

The third listing petition — for the Mono Lake, CA, population of greater sage grouse — is pending FWS review.

Sage grouse, though, aren't the Lone Rangers in the West's vast sagebrush sea (see map). As Salvo suggests, they are looking at protecting sagebrush habitat for hundreds of other bird, mammal, reptile and plant species. But, preservationists see sage grouse as a widespread indicator species for this huge ecosystem.

Looking At The “Science”

Ranchers, agency land managers and wildlife biologists are forming community groups in every Western state to head off sage grouse listing.

In northwest Colorado, Jean Stetson of Maybell is a rancher representative on local and regional sage grouse working groups. She would like to see more research regarding how current range management practices on public land impact sage grouse populations.

“There is little existing valid science that explores the relationship between grazing by livestock, and wild ungulates and sage grouse,” says Stetson. “We know improvement of habitat for grouse will result in improved grazing conditions.”

She feels it's time to come up with common sense solutions to sage grouse conservation. “We've seen it on our ranch — sage grouse and cattle can co-exist,” she says.

The Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) is doing everything possible to prevent an ESA listing of the sage grouse.

“We feel it's very important that any discussion related to sage grouse acknowledges the benefits that livestock grazing provides — and that habitat, monitoring and predators are all considered,” says Sara Braasch, ICA's executive vice president. “In Idaho we have five local working groups consisting of agency folk, ranchers, sportsmen, bird lovers, etc., that have been meeting to put together management plans.”

In Oneida County, ID, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and pending management plan for the 47,600-acre Curlew National Grassland are driven by attention to sage grouse habitat, says Ken Eliason, president of the more than 30-permittee Curlew Horse & Cattle Association.

“If the drafters of the EIS were up front about their motives, they would state the DEIS is a sage grouse management plan, not a land management plan,” explains Eliason. “The fact is, sage grouse appear to be surviving at sustainable levels under current management.”

Action to repopulate sage grouse in Utah is “fast and furious,” says Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the Utah Cattle Association. “We have several sage grouse working groups that are targeting species rehabilitation.”

Tanner is optimistic that on-going research in Utah will show a positive interaction between livestock and sage grouse.

But while Salvo says the working groups are bringing attention to the plight of the sage grouse, he's generally critical of their efforts.

“They're largely political and aren't acknowledging the research that's been done on the negative impacts of grazing and other activities on sage grouse.” he explains. “Science shows us large numbers of cows and sage grouse can't co-exist.”

Salvo contends the working groups aren't addressing the tough questions — and says ranchers generally aren't willing to make the sacrifices that need to be made on behalf of endangered species.

Beyond Endangered Species

Stetson believes environmentalists are asking ranchers to make more than sacrifices. She reflects the sentiments of many ranchers that the sage grouse is being used as a vehicle to push ranchers off the pubic rangelands, much as the spotted owl was used nearly 20 years ago to curtail logging in Pacific Northwest forests.

“It's a land control issue,” she says. “If we're going to do what is truly best for the sage grouse, federal agencies need to stop their heavy-handed approach to land management. They need to encourage cooperation with public land users as well as private land owners.”

Salvo contends that the goal is to conserve and restore sage grouse populations, not necessarily remove ranchers from the public lands.

“It's not that we dislike ranchers,” replies Salvo. “We just dislike what their cows are doing to the landscape.”

Salvo admits there may be some “interesting cultural aspects” to what ranchers do. But, he contends grazing itself is antiquated and the sagebrush ecosystem is not able to tolerate heavy grazing use as it's been done for the past 150 years.

Salvo says it's clear that public lands grazing is part of an era gone by.

“Cattle are produced so much more quickly and efficiently in feedlots,” he points out. “There's a lot less business risk in raising cattle on private land or in feedlots. The production is much higher in feedlots, or in places like Florida or throughout the Midwest, than it is on Western public lands.”

He Doesn't Buy It

Ron Micheli doesn't buy any of it. As director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, he says livestock grazing is a logical and sustainable way to manage and use public lands for everyone's benefit.

“Ranchers provide habitat for wildlife, clean water and, most of all, open spaces,” says Micheli. “They do all that at virtually no cost to the American public. The alternative is development — development that is anything but environmentally friendly.”

The sage grouse is a perfect example of how the ESA is being used as a surrogate issue to influence land management, explains Micheli. “It has nothing to do with promulgation of the species. It has everything to do with achieving a goal that's far beyond the purpose of the ESA. We see it happening time and time again.”

Micheli challenges environmental groups to back up what they contend with facts. He also points out that the prairie ecosystem has had grazing as one of its components for centuries.

“To say livestock grazing is the reason for the demise of the sage grouse is simply not based on fact,” he says.

Ongoing Conservation

State fish and wildlife biologists tend not to believe grazing is leading to the demise of the sage grouse. Sage grouse management guidelines were first published in 1977. Strategies included the development of conservation plans in each state and province.

“They are looking at facts as opposed to emotion and don't have the surrogate agenda that some groups have,” says Micheli.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies adopted a memorandum of understanding in 1996 to develop and implement sage grouse conservation plans. These efforts are underway and significant progress has been made, explains Jack Connelly, Pocatello, ID. He's gamebird research program manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

“Sage grouse populations in some areas have stabilized and are modestly increasing,” says Connelly. “A threatened or endangered listing under the ESA is discouraged, as listing would erode or destroy community support for conservation plans, increase federal involvement and decrease local involvement.”

“It's firmly believed that conservation plans provide a positive alternative to mandated management dictated through federal listing under the ESA,” adds San Stiver, Reno, NV, Nevada Division of Wildlife.

Taking No Chances

Still, Jasper Carlton, executive director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, says local conservation planning was not saving the Gunnison sage grouse from extinction.

“Despite conservation agreements between government agencies and private parties, the Gunnison sage grouse has continued to decline,” he says. “This is a rescue mission.”

The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) isn't taking any chances that ongoing conservation efforts will work for sage grouse populations. ONDA wants cattle off the range, now.

Through an Internet-based form letter, ONDA is asking Web surfers to make their voices heard. Their focus includes the Lakeview, OR, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) district office, which is currently preparing its final Resource Management Plan/EIS for the Lakeview Resource Area.

“This new plan will set management direction for the next decade,” say ONDA organizers. “Urge the BLM to adopt a stronger plan which excludes livestock grazing and off-road vehicle use from proposed Wild and Scenic Rivers, critical fish and wildlife habitat, sage grouse leks and all Wilderness Study Areas.”

Micheli sums it up best for the ranching industry.

“If the sage grouse is listed under the ESA the impact will be huge,” he states. “It will be the driving force for every decision on public lands use in the West.”