The greater sage grouse once numbered in the many millions across the West, but its population has been in steady decline over the last century. The species now numbers a few hundred thousand spread across 11 Western states and development has cut the habitat to half its historical size. Sage grouse are dependent on the sagebrush ecosystem, which provides cover from raptors and other predators, serve as shelter for nesting birds in the summer, and supply the grouse’s sole source of food in the winter.
In the past 15 years, more than 40 million acres of the West have been leased for development. Recently, oil and gas companies have been especially aggressive in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming while demands for renewable energy production have drastically compounded the issue by creating a “land rush” on areas available for development. Developing wildlands has become one of the most challenging and politically contentious issues in the West, according to Steven William, Ph.D., former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, former secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and a lifelong sportsman who has hunted throughout the West for years.
The Greater Sage-Grouse is an indicator species of the health of the sagebrush ecosystem, which spans all most of the central Rocky Mountain States. This same sagebrush ecosystem is critical to protecting more than 350 other species that live there, particularly mule deer and pronghorn antelope, and supports some of the nation's best hunting for mule deer, elk, pronghorn and sage grouse, in addition to blue-ribbon fishing for cutthroat, rainbow and brown trout, which brings millions of dollars to western states each year.
The Fish & Wildlife Service considered the bird for a listing under the Endangered Species Act, which would have put restrictions on using the habitat for drilling, energy development and ranching. A huge collaborative effort between conservation groups, landowners, government agencies and industry resulted in ambitious commitments to conserve the sage grouse habitat in order to avoid a listing. Sage grouse recovery plans were developed and land-use plans were updated to conserve 35 million acres of federal lands across 10 states and significantly reduce threats to the bird. In September 2015, Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the bird does not warrant listing. Although some of our partner groups had hoped the bird would be listed under the Endangered Species Act to put into place strict regulations that would limit development, other groups argued that a listing would undermine the collaborative efforts taken in multiple states in recent years, that have been successful in protecting sage grouse habitat.
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