By Ron Stoneberg
Guest Column 

Gauging the Greater Sage Grouse Listing Dilemma


The time is rapidly approaching when the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has to do something or get-off-the-pot concerning listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, a reprieve may be in the making as Congress debates a bill that would postpone listing for another 10 years. I would bet the Service and their supporters are quietly lobbying hard for passage of this bill since it not only lets them off the hook (I will try to explain why this is desired) but it keeps in place their main club used to force others to carry out their agenda. The club is the THREAT of listing! How many times have you heard bureaucrats and/or politicians say, "If we don't do this or pass this the Service is going to list the sage grouse"? My contention has always been, if the sage grouse meets the criteria for listing (which I do not believe it does) then by all means list it and be done with it.

The threat of listing has met with phenomenal success. Every government agency, political subdivision, and environmental organization and even some farm and ranch organizations have jumped on board forming countless working groups, advisory councils, administrative boards, etc, etc, to solve the sage grouse dilemma. Money has poured in. Incredibly, over a BILLION dollars have been spent on sage grouse during the last 20 years. So, other than bureaucrats spending thousands of hours cranking out reports, action plans, policies, recommendations, etc, etc, where did all these taxpayer dollars go? Agency personnel will tell you that most of the money that actually reached the ground was spent on protecting and improving sage grouse habitat. The term 'habitat' refers to all the elements (abiotic-nonliving and biotic-living) in an animal's environment or 'home'. For terrestrial species it includes such things as soils, substrate, elevation, exposure, weather, climate, vegetation, diseases, and other animals. Unfortunately, many researchers only look at vegetation when discussing a terrestrial species' habitat. The three main needs of a terrestrial animal are food, water, and cover. It is well known that sagebrush is a critical component of the sage-grouse winter diet and most of the 'habitat' money has been spent on protecting the existing sagebrush areas. Very little has been spent on other aspects of the sage grouses' habitat. At present, lack of sagebrush does not appear to be the limiting factor causing sage grouse declines.

The other issue that has generated concern is 'cover'. Cover refers to an animal's protection from the elements (cold, heat, precipitation, wind, etc.) and escape from predators. Sage grouse inhabit the sagebrush/steppe biome that is characterized as short-grass prairie (emphasis on short!). Most research suggests predation is one of the main causes of mortality for sage grouse (West Nile virus is another one). The policy makers' solution to the predation problem has been to recommend increasing the height and density of the vegetation to make it harder for predators to find the grouse. There are at least three main elements influencing the height and density of the vegetation on the plains. First is the natural growth pattern of the plants. Many grasses and forbs are low growing in this harsh environment. Grazing livestock and wildlife also have an impact. They reduce the height and change the species composition of a pasture. Better grazing management has resulted in spectacular range vegetation improvement since the 1930's. Lastly, the weather has a huge influence on vegetation growth rates and composition. Those of us living on the sagebrush plains marvel at the difference in vegetation a slight change in amount or timing of precipitation or temperature can produce. No two years are the same! Often the result is that the plants do not always listen to the standards and recommendations dictated by report-writing bureaucrats.

The Service has three choices concerning listing the greater sage grouse under the ESA guidelines. They could list it as Threatened (I do not think they would go Endangered); determine listing is not warranted; or they could use the curious, bureaucratic, decision-avoiding, classification of 'warranted but precluded'. The latter means they think sage grouse fit the criteria for listing, but they are not going to do anything because they lack time, money and intestinal fortitude.

Here is the dilemma in which the Service finds itself. If they find the sage grouse populations are continuing to decline and warrant listing under ESA, then all the time, money (remember it's over a billion dollars!!) and conservation efforts expended so far have been a waste! Listing the sage grouse as threatened would be an admission that the emphasis on habitat (i.e. vegetation) was the wrong approach and a new direction is needed. If it is agreed that predation is a problem and if protecting the birds with more vegetation did not work, then what is left? As every common-sense rancher has been saying since day one - PREDATOR CONTROL! Most ranchers when faced with a problem or issue look at what worked and what didn't work. History tells us predator control worked! In the 1920s and 30s every raptor and cervid was shot on sight and all predatory mammals were trapped, shot or poisoned. The result was an explosion of the sage grouse population in spite of the fact the vegetation was very limited due to drought and over-grazing. The impact of the predator reduction on sage grouse populations lasted until the early 1970s.

We all know the Service is not going to unleash a major predator control program (other than issuing a few permits to allow shooting a few ravens). So what will it do? I think they only have two choices left: declare the greater sage-grouse 'unwarranted for listing' or use their preferred bureaucratic cop-out and say it is 'warranted but precluded'. By doing the latter they could claim the conservation efforts by the state and federal agencies are working and encourage them to continue pouring tax dollars and effort down the same rat hole.

It should be obvious by now why the Service hopes Congress will pass the bill extending the listing decision on sage grouse for 10 more years.

Ron Stoneberg

Box 37

Hinsdale, MT 59241


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