Grouse on the outs 

Sage grouse will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced last week. Instead, conservation efforts on behalf of North America’s largest grouse will remain in the hands of state and local partnerships.

“After extensive review from the [Fish and Wildlife] Service, I am glad that science has determined that these birds do not fall under the category of endangered species,” Montana Senator Conrad Burns said in a statement.

Grouse numbers have fluctuated, mostly downward, across the West for decades as housing development, cattle grazing, invasive species, road building and oil and gas development consume sagebrush steppe. Historical sage grouse populations have been estimated from two million to as high as 16 million. Today, about 100,000 to 500,000 of the birds remain. Montana once had about 700 active leks—sites where the birds congregate during mating season—but that number has dwindled to about 300.

The 11 Western states containing suitable habitat—characterized by large expanses of dense sage brush—are in various stages of carrying out community-based conservation plans.

The Montana Sage Grouse Work Group has been developing a statewide management plan for the conservation of the birds for about three years. The plan relies on local citizen groups to tailor management plans to local areas. Three such groups started work last winter in Dillon, Miles City and Glasgow, and eventually 11 such groups could be organized throughout the state.

“Montana’s state plan is one of the best in the West,” said Ben Deeble, sage grouse project coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. Deeble says Montana has been careful to build strong community-based groups but concedes they are under pressure to prove successful.

Other environmental groups are watching the progress of the local groups and reserve the right to revisit the listing issue either with the USFWS or in court.

“We think most of these [state] plans are flawed,” says Mark Salvo, the director the Sagebrush Sea Campaign. He points to a widespread lack of funding for the plans and over-reliance on toothless recommendations. Salvo worked with the American Lands Alliance, which, along with about 20 other environmental groups, petitioned the USFWS to list the sage grouse in December 2003.

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