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Saving Utah's sage grouse

Published May 11, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Greater sage grouse endure icy winters and blazing summers on the high desert, subsisting on little more than wildflowers and tiny, bitter sagebrush leaves. Some flocks migrate over a hundred miles annually between summer and winter habitat.

But every spring they arrive faithfully to their dancing grounds, called leks, to stage flamboyant mating displays. The largest grouse in North America, sage grouse are amazing birds.

Nineteenth century travelers reported seeing huge flocks of sage grouse that darkened the sky as the birds lifted from valley floors. Native Americans emulated sage grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. Settlers hunted the bird for food, and even collected sage grouse eggs in spring for table use.

Centuries of Westerners have admired sage grouse as fellow dwellers of the Sagebrush Sea, and birders travel from around the world to see sage grouse in the wild.

Unfortunately, after enduring and thriving for millennia, sage grouse now face an uncertain future in Utah and throughout the West.

Humans have plowed, sprayed, burned, drilled, developed, mined and grazed millions of acres of sage grouse habitat. Remaining sagebrush steppe is fragmented and degraded by weeds, wildfire, juniper encroachment, utility corridors, roads and fences. As a result, sage grouse have lost half their range and suffered long-term population decline.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider whether to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act by 2015. The timing is good news for grouse, but also for Western states, which now have two years to demonstrate to the agency that they are capable of addressing threats to the species and ensuring its conservation prior to a final ESA listing decision.

In fact, Western governors requested this opportunity to exercise their authority and meet their stewardship responsibilities for conserving imperiled sage grouse. But now Gov. Gary Herbert and his public lands staff could squander Utah's chance to demonstrate the state's commitment to conservation.

The governor recently released Utah's final sage grouse plan and, frankly, it is flawed. Herbert's recommended conservation measures are unscientific, ineffective and incomplete. The final plan includes prescriptions that the Fish and Wildlife Service has criticized repeatedly as inadequate to conserve sage grouse.

The plan fails to include even basic tenets of a successful sage grouse conservation strategy. For example, in spite of the best available science, the plan does not implement effective buffers around sage grouse leks to conserve vital breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitat.

The plan also allows for an unacceptable level of fossil fuel and wind energy development within priority habitat areas, while relying heavily on unproven restoration measures to mitigate for the resultant habitat loss.

And then there's livestock grazing. While sage grouse science advises limiting and managing grazing in order to leave more grass and wildflowers for the grouse, the Utah plan attempts to make the opposite case that livestock grazing actually improves grouse habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will consider all state conservation efforts — good, bad, and ugly — across sage grouse range in its listing decision in 2015. The state has an obligation to its residents, as well as other Western states, to meet its stewardship responsibilities for the species. There is still time to fix Utah's plan, but the governor and his staff must act quickly.

Utah is lucky to have sage grouse as part of its natural heritage. It should use the current opportunity to ensure the grouse is still around for future generations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is watching. Now is the time for Utah to lead and truly conserve sage grouse.

Mark Salvo is federal lands program analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. Allison Jones is conservation biologist for Wild Utah Project.