The pending decision on federal protections for the greater sage grouse has dominated a lot of the recent discussion about conservation in America. After all, multiple industries and millions of people have a lot at stake when it comes to use of lands containing the iconic Western sagebrush habitat, where the birds are determined to be at risk.
‘But, wait,’ you might say, ‘I just read that the sage grouse populations are rebounding.’ You wouldn’t be wrong, but we have a long way to go, and there is still justification to move forward with landscape-scale conservation, the results of collaborative planning efforts like we’ve never seen before.
Let’s clear this up.
For many species of wildlife, like the greater sage grouse, it’s extremely difficult to count or estimate population sizes and trends. Gamebird populations are often cyclical—they can wax and wane over the course of up to 10-year cycles—and fluctuate closely with precipitation levels. Rain yields grass, grass serves as ground cover, and cover usually translates to good nest production and chick survival.
It’s easy to get depressed when bird numbers are down or get excited when they are up. It’s also easy to jump to premature conclusions about what those numbers really mean, if we forget that one year’s counts are just a small part of the bigger picture.
Just two years ago, amidst a serious West-wide drought, numbers of male sage grouse attending their dancing grounds, or leks, were at near-record lows. Recently, however, rains have drenched much of the birds’ range, and numbers have responded as most might expect. In fact, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) recently reported a range-wide increase in males attending leks in 2015—up 63 percent from 2013.
While this is great news, some opponents of federal land management plans, which are about to be signed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are taking these numbers completely out of context to support their agenda. In an August 24 letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the American Exploration and Mining Association said, “We believe this study demonstrates that state and private conservation efforts to conserve greater sage grouse and its habitat are working… It also demonstrates that the mineral withdrawals and draconian land use and travel restrictions in the proposed Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) land use plan amendments are unnecessary to provide meaningful protection of sage-grouse habitat. The WAFWA report provides ample data and evidence in support of BLM adopting each state plan as the land use plan amendments across the 11 sage-grouse states.”
Other groups have made similar claims that increased numbers of grouse somehow prove that the BLM plans are unnecessary and that state plans and voluntary efforts are adequate. These statements are wildly misleading for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, the recent increase in sage grouse populations has not altered the overall downward trend from 1965 to present—the average decline over the past 50 years is actually about one percent a year, slowly but surely chipping away at the basis for survival of the species.
Also, the 63-percent increase this year is relative to the second-lowest counts on record. While perhaps on the high end, this increase falls within the range of normal fluctuations for any gamebird population, especially given the climate conditions across much of the birds’ range. Fluctuations documented by the WAFWA report cannot be attributed to any one factor. This analysis was not designed to isolate the effectiveness of state plans, voluntary measures, or any other conservation effort, and shouldn’t be used to make that case. WAFWA makes this very clear in its report and in the accompanying press release.
Recently-employed conservation efforts have no doubt contributed to the improvement of conditions, but it is premature to say that increased numbers of males at leks are being driven by those efforts. It’s certainly inappropriate to debunk the need for strong conservation on federal lands that make up a significant portion of the birds’ range and that must be managed for multiple uses, like sustainable ranching, responsible energy development, and recreation. State conservation efforts are fundamental to achieving long-term conservation, but they cannot stand alone. And at this point, despite what opponents may say, there is no scientific data to prove that they should.
The good news is that climatic conditions have aided the population’s rebound and further conservation efforts are about to be put in place across the Western landscape by federal, state, and private sectors. This “all-of-the-above” approach is, in my opinion, the only way we’ll get to a place where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can say that sage grouse are not warranted for Endangered Species Act protections—and defend that decision in court. Only then do we have any chance of reversing long-term overall habitat and population trends from negative to positive.