Ed Arnett

April 8, 2021

What’s Behind the 80% Drop in Sage Grouse Populations

Here’s why these once abundant game birds are in even worse shape than we thought and what must come next in the effort to restore sagebrush habitat

Springtime in the West brings many familiar sounds to those spending time in the outdoors, and few can rival the peculiarity and excitement of hearing male sage grouse calling to potential mates as they dance on their breeding grounds. Known as leks, these literal stomping grounds are where biologists can reliably count birds with some degree of consistency to gauge the health of the species.

But fewer and fewer male sage grouse are showing up to leks, and that has scientists, managers, and sportsmen and women deeply concerned.

In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey recently released a grim report on sage grouse populations. Their analysis showed that there are 80 percent fewer males dancing on their leks across the Western landscape than in 1965, and half of that loss has occurred in just the last 17 years. The long-term trend averages out to be about 3 percent fewer birds at leks each year.

While some areas are showing recent increases in bird abundance, about 45 percent of remaining leks are predicted to disappear in the next 20 years and 78 percent could be gone in 56 years—unless conditions change.

I’ve explained in previous blogs that short-term and long-term factors can affect lek counts, which is why year-over-year gains shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated. (Read more about that here.) Strong precipitation for a single season or two may boost sage grouse numbers in a state or region, but the overall downward trend has actually continued and deepened for this iconic game bird.

 

 

In a separate announcement in early March, the USGS reported that only 55 percent of the historical extent of sagebrush habitat now remains. Here are five key reasons why:

Ten percent of sagebrush has been converted to cropland.

Studies demonstrate that tillage rates of only about a quarter of a given landscape around leks can cause male grouse to abandon them. Cropland conversion also fragments the landscape more broadly and reduces the suitability of the remaining smaller patches of sagebrush. Cultivated lands no longer in production can take decades to recover and may even be permanently degraded from prior use of herbicides.

Energy development and mining have affected millions of acres of sagebrush.

This includes activities related to oil and gas and renewables, such as wind and solar. Impacts from development are well documented and remove habitat outright or render some of the remaining habitat nearby unusable to sage grouse due to disturbance around the infrastructure.

More than 20 percent of sagebrush habitat in the Rocky Mountain region has been affected by oil and gas development and mining. We also know that millions of acres of priority sage grouse habitat were leased for oil and gas development during the last administration, and many impacts from existing development were never fully mitigated in recent years.

Conifers are creating imbalance on the landscape.

Across the West, juniper and pinyon pine trees—native species to these landscapes—have expanded dramatically since European settlement and this has consequences for sagebrush and wildlife. Conifer expansion changes the vegetation and can negatively alter wildlife use, water and nutrient cycles, carbon storage, and resistance to invasion from invasive plant species. Removing conifer trees in sagebrush stimulates the growth of forbs and bunchgrasses up to 20 times over. Unfortunately, while conifer removal has occurred across wide swaths of land in the West, the expansion continues to outpace removal, and we continue losing ground to this threat.

Climate change is accelerating threats to habitat.

Parts of the West are experiencing a 20-year megadrought, a clear sign that our changing climate is altering landscapes and making it more difficult to repair them once they are damaged. Warmer spring temperatures mean drier soil earlier in the season, and that leads to longer periods of hot and dry conditions during summer. In turn, these hotter and drier conditions leave plants with less resistance to wildfire.

These altered fire cycles have had enormous impacts on sage country, where fire season is now 134 percent longer. The enormity of these fires has also increased substantially over the past two decades, according to the USGS report. Since 2000, more that 20 percent of priority habitat management areas for sage grouse within the Great Basin alone have burned, in part due to climate conditions. And the next few decades are predicted to be even worse, further threatening the sagebrush ecosystem without serious investment and intervention.

Invasive cheatgrass is fueling more (and hotter) fires.

And then there’s cheatgrass—an insidious non-native annual grass that has expanded across the West and particularly in the arid Great Basin region. This invasive species contributed to altering the normal fire cycle, producing much larger and more intense and frequent wildfires that consume huge expanses of sagebrush. Left unchecked, invasive plants degrade plant communities, wildlife habitat, and migratory corridors and threaten wildlife survival. They also can cause significant negative economic impacts.

Worse yet, like expanding conifers and wildfires, current management programs are addressing less than 10 percent of cheatgrass infestations—far more acres are becoming infected than are being treated, and agencies will continue to struggle to keep pace without robust funding.

The truth is that no one factor is affecting the entire range of the greater sage grouse, but this holistic and long-term picture of loss in sage grouse country points to one sure thing: an immediate need to conserve remaining habitat AND provide greater investments in sagebrush restoration.

 

 

What Comes Next for Sage Grouse Conservation

There was some good news in the USGS reports: Scientists have developed some amazing new tools to help wildlife managers better detect when sage grouse populations may be in trouble. These “early warning systems” will hopefully improve the ability to address problems faster as conservation plans are being implemented.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has also been developing a broader sagebrush conservation strategy to help guide the collective efforts of local, state, tribal, and federal government agencies and nongovernmental stakeholders across all scales to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem.

Still, just implementing the current conservation plans and mitigating all future impacts may not be enough. With so many millions of acres of sagebrush in degraded conditions, we need massive investments in habitat restoration on top of implementing the conservation plans already in place.

Combating cheatgrass will take years and likely billions of dollars of investment. Removing invading conifers that can overtake sagebrush habitats already has been conducted across the West, but not nearly fast enough or across enough acres.

However, with challenges like these also come opportunities. The Biden Administration has put forth an aggressive climate change agenda and could be sold on restoration efforts in the sagebrush ecosystem that can put people to work while improving carbon storage and the resilience of these habitats to climate change.

This is an opportunity, if we view it as such. We need Congress, federal and state agencies, and the private sector to make the necessary investments in conservation and restoration that will reap many rewards for all stakeholders in the future.

Sportsmen and women have, of course, been on the frontlines of sage grouse conservation for decades, and our dollars—through licenses, habitat stamps, and Pittman-Robertson funds—have and will continue to support sage grouse conservation.

We’ve also sacrificed along the way. Over the past several years, most Western state wildlife agencies have made major adjustments to the harvest of sage grouse. Season closures have been carried out the right way where it has mattered most.

It has been demonstrated time and time again that regulated hunting of sage grouse is not a major threat to overall population status, but these continued downward trends cannot be ignored by state wildlife agencies. Hunters may yet again see more changes to hunting seasons and bag limits, and perhaps closures, in the coming years because of habitat losses.

Our state wildlife agencies must do their jobs and will continually adjust the harvest to ensure that less than 10 percent of the estimated total population of sage grouse are taken each fall. But sportsmen and women must do theirs too.

One fear is that with more hunting restrictions and closures hunters will lose interest in sage grouse and conservation of its ecosystem. However, this is not the time to relax on advocating for strengthening conservation efforts.

Reversing these population and habitat trends was never going to be an easy task – even back when the bird was first proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. Now, the hole to dig out of is even deeper. We still need all hands on deck in sage grouse country, and that includes sportsmen and sportswomen advocating for decisive steps to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem.

Images courtesy of USFWS, Tom Koerner

8 Responses to “What’s Behind the 80% Drop in Sage Grouse Populations”

  1. Tom Winstel

    It’s a shame that the bipartisan plan to safeguard Sage grouse habitat was abandoned by the previous administration after years of compromise to assure sustainable populations. I had the fortunate opportunity to combine hunting Sage Grouse in Wyoming while on an Antelope hunting trip. It turned out to be a special upland hunt my son and I will always remember harvesting this iconic species. Sportsmen need to come together with other economic drivers to put a real sustainable plan in place for habitat protection before the population becomes to fragmented.

    • Glenn Ainsworth

      Besides the change in the fire regime throughout the west brought on by invasive species, what I don’t see in this article the damages done to Sage Grouse by the possible affects of the West Nile Virus. It came to us in the early 2000’s and the biggest declines in their population seem to have occurred in the same time frame.

  2. Rick Sojda

    …and then, there are the sacred cows (and horses). How many acres of sagebrush have been converted to grass for cows by chaining, and herbicides, and targeted burning? Maybe most before 1965? Certainly these days there are bright spots of enlightened ranchers and grazing systems, yet there still seem to be too many examples of overgrazing in many places. Sometimes this results in too dense sagebrush stands and/or fewer forbs than optimum habitat would dictate. How has grazing fostered cheat? The science of cumulative effects and multivariate models is hardly straightforward, and I agree that we need not to look for a univariate answer to a multivariate problem. Grazing problems are certainly not the magic factor, and “green side up” is always better than “roots up”. Thanks for fine insights, Ed. “Nothing simple is ever easy” –as a former colleague used to say.

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Derek Eberly

April 2, 2021

Preserving Pennsylvania Streams: Monocacy Creek

This video is the second in a series detailing conservation projects powered by Pennsylvania’s Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund that benefit hunters and anglers. Since 1993, the Keystone Fund has continued to provide state-level matching dollars for a variety of conservation projects, including land acquisition, river conservation, and trail work. This series is the result of a collaboration between the TRCP and Trout Unlimited where the goal is simply to celebrate conservation success stories that make us all proud to be able to hunt and fish in Pennsylvania. The videos highlight just a few of the projects powered by this critical source of conservation funding. For more information on the Keystone Fund, you can visit: https://keystonefund.org.

Warmer weather and blooming forsythia and cherry blossoms are more than just the harbingers of spring in Pennsylvania. For anglers, these are the signals that soon the air above our best trout streams will be filled with mayflies, and the waters below will be teeming with hungry, rising trout.

Spring means the beginning of another trout season. For many, the smells, sounds, and sights of spring conjure memories of past adventures with friends and family, while simultaneously calling us back to the water.

In the Lehigh Valley, you don’t have to look very far to find quality wild trout habitat. That’s good news for anglers living in one of the most densely populated areas in the state. The Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area is blessed with some of Pennsylvania’s best limestone spring creeks—famously challenging, yet productive trout streams. Among these well-known “limestoners” is Monocacy Creek, which flows south through the heart of Bethlehem and eventually into the Lehigh River, a quality wild trout river in its own right.

The presence of wild trout in this urban gem is no accident: It is the result of decades of stewardship. Like many urban wild trout streams in Pennsylvania, the Monocacy has seen its fair share of challenges. In 1989, a nearby chemical spill killed more than 30,000 fish, many of them wild brown trout. Since then, the area has experienced a boom in development, resulting in challenges with polluted stormwater runoff and degraded streambank habitat.

Enter the Monocacy Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Monocacy Watershed Association. Members of these conservation organizations have worked hand in hand with Bethlehem municipal departments and other conservation organizations to preserve coldwater trout habitat along the creek through various projects funded by the Keystone Recreation, Park, and Conservation Fund and the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund.

Many of these projects not only restore or improve habitat—they also help to mitigate the impacts of flooding and provide better access to anglers from the surrounding communities and beyond. (For a local perspective on the popularity of Monocacy Creek, check out this blog from angler Michael Evanko.)

Spring in Pennsylvania means another trout season full of making memories and forging connections outdoors. It’s also a good time to take a moment and recognize the tools, projects, and programs that gave us the places we love to fish.

Unfortunately, our work is not done. April showers may bring May flowers, but they are a reminder of the stormwater runoff challenges and need for streambank stabilization made possible by state-funded conservation. Spring is also traditionally the beginning of the state budget season, when funding in the Keystone Fund and Environmental Stewardship Fund has perennially come under threat.

Take a look at what these funds mean to local angler Jose DeJesus, a member of Monocacy TU and Monocacy Watershed Association. Listen as he shares his story of chasing trout over a lifetime on the Monocacy.

Randall Williams

March 30, 2021

New Report Highlights Even Steeper Decline of Greater Sage Grouse Populations

Conservationists call for renewed commitment to habitat restoration and other key priorities

Today, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report that raises serious questions about the future of the greater sage grouse and its ecosystem.

Report findings showed an overall 80-percent decline in sage grouse populations in the western United States since 1965, with an average annual rate of loss estimated at 3 percent, a full percentage point higher than in previously available data prepared for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“The fact that sage grouse populations are trending even further in the wrong direction should be taken very seriously by hunters, conservationists, wildlife managers, and all citizens of the American West,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There is no question that this deeper range-wide loss of birds is indicative of the continued loss and degradation of habitat, and stakeholders at every level need to regroup fast to determine a path forward that creates lasting conservation impacts for these iconic game birds.”

In a separate report released on March 9, the USGS found that sagebrush habitat is being lost at an alarming rate due to mining and energy development, conversion to cropland, invasive grasses, and altered wildfire cycles. Since 2000, more than 20 percent of priority sage grouse habitat within the Great Basin alone has burned.

“Sagebrush ecosystems are experiencing declines that were unimaginable just 20 years ago due to cheatgrass invasion, fire, and other human disturbances,” said Ted Koch, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “We know what it takes to stem the loss, now all we need is to regain the partnerships and the collective will to do it.”

Conservation efforts also will undoubtedly need to go beyond the current management plans to address rapidly changing and degrading habitats in the West.

“Restoring degraded habitat is now more important than ever for reversing trends in habitat loss in the sagebrush ecosystem,” said Joel Pedersen, president and CEO for the Mule Deer Foundation. “The Mule Deer Foundation will continue to ensure that funding for habitat restoration and enhancement is a top priority across the West and that projects get implemented on the ground to benefit sage grouse, mule deer, and other species.”

Conservation on private lands has played a vital role in sagebrush recovery since the inception of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010. Continuing to engage landowners and incentivize conservation in sagebrush country will be critical into the future.

“Private landowner conservation efforts were critical to the success of getting the 2015 not-warranted decision for sage grouse,” said Howard Vincent, President and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “We need continued investments in the Sage Grouse Initiative and other private land incentive programs to ensure the long-term health of the sagebrush ecosystem and its occupants, including people that live and work there.”

While deeply concerned, the hunting and fishing community believes that with adequate funding, cooperation, and conservation plan implementation – coupled with massive investments in restoration – that a future listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act can be avoided. But time is running out.

“These new study findings are sounding an alarm that cannot be ignored,” said Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Clearly the threats to sage grouse and their habitat are not being adequately addressed in a manner that sustains the species over the long-term. There’s still time to assess the situation and reverse these trends, but it is getting more difficult for the Fish and Wildlife Service to defend and maintain their 2015 not-warranted finding for sage grouse.”

 

Image courtesy of Jennifer Hall/USFWS.

Vista Outdoor: Follow Outdoor Industry Model for Climate Leadership, Progress

This is a guest blog from Fred Ferguson, Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications for Anoka-based outdoor gear maker Vista Outdoor Inc.

The solutions for a stronger, more resilient climate are a uniting force. Conservation, stewardship, and efficiencies are ideals that each political party can and should support. But for far too long, the national debate on climate has been coopted by preconceived notions of yesteryear and driven by the ideological extremes of both sides.

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. must come together to chart a new and better path. Relitigating old debates or rehashing the same outdated climate playbook will not cut it.

Americans have migrated back to nature in record numbers during the pandemic. Moving forward these families, enthusiasts and voters look for more from policymakers on climate. They expect elected leadership to unite and work for common solutions on this pressing issue.

The hunting and outdoor recreation industries have led the way in creating some of the nation’s most effective environmental laws, from the establishment of national forests and wildlife refuges to the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Leaders today should embrace these new outdoor trends and again turn to the outdoor industry as a model for advancing climate solutions.

Organizations like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Outdoor Industry Association are leading coalitions who believe that bipartisan climate solutions are governmental, business and societal imperatives. We are proud members of each organization and are supporting these industry-wide initiatives.

Outdoor recreation organizations and companies are uniquely positioned in that we sit in the crossroads of different industries, consumer groups and political interests. Yet despite our wide-ranging consumer interests, we agree that the climate is changing and that we can do something about it.

The hunting and outdoor industries have testified before Congress on the need for individuals, businesses and governments to work together to address climate and its changes. Moving ahead, we look forward to working with President Biden and his team, including Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Her leadership in bringing together this coalition is needed and will serve our country well.

My company, Vista Outdoor, recently endorsed the Conservationists for Climate Solutions Policy Statement (Climate Statement). The Climate Statement is a first-of-its-kind framework that offers a comprehensive climate plan based in proven, bipartisan land and water management strategies. The Climate Statement outlines detailed solutions for policymakers in the areas of Agriculture, Forests, Rangelands, and Grasslands, Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Streams, Wetlands, Coastal Resilience and Adaptation.

The Climate Statement is endorsed by 41 outdoor associations. These associations, much like Vista Outdoor, cover the full range of outdoor interests, from the Trust for Public Land to the National Deer Alliance and Pheasants Forever. The geographic and political diversity of their membership demonstrates the power of pragmatic solutions and outlines a path forward for bipartisanship in Congress.

The Climate Statement is also good policy. Improved management of land, water and our natural resources can support national carbon sequestration and emissions reduction targets. These natural sequestration improvements are significant. A recent study found that the United States could mitigate 20% of its carbon emissions through natural solutions, which is equivalent to removing emissions from all cars and trucks on U.S. roads today.

Congress must take note of these bipartisan and expansive coalitions. Interest in the outdoors is surging and it’s imperative that our elected leaders respond and look to the outdoors as the path forward.

 

Fred Ferguson serves as Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications for Vista Outdoor Inc. (NYSE: VSTO) and its 34 consumer brands. In this capacity, Ferguson supports the investor relations portfolio and directly manages corporate communications, government relations and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting. Ferguson’s duties support corporate strategy and objectives while also bolstering brand-level planning and execution. Ferguson began with Vista Outdoor Inc. in 2017 following a career in the United States House of Representatives where he served as Chief of Staff to a senior Member of Congress.

Melinda Kassen

March 18, 2021

Filling the Gap Left by Harmful Clean Water Rollback

Colorado will attempt to safeguard its 10,000 miles of streams left unprotected by the Clean Water Act

Over the last two decades, federal water policy has swung like a pendulum as courts and the White House try to interpret, expand, or shrink protections for streams, wetlands, and rivers. Hunters and anglers know that clean water is the foundation of our outdoor activities. Unfortunately, we are continuously defending bedrock conservation laws to preserve habitat for fish and wildlife.

Take, for example, the Navigable Waters Protection (NWP) Rule, which was issued by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers last year. It removes Clean Water Act protections from more than 18 percent of the nation’s streams and as much as 50 percent of remaining wetlands. This has serious consequences for fish and wildlife but, despite vocal opposition, the rule went into effect everywhere but Colorado—until now.

(If you want to read more on why Colorado was an outlier, here is an in-depth legal blog that explains it.)

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals issued an order allowing the implementation of the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to proceed in Colorado. This is troubling in many ways as you’ll see in the maps below.

Based on a recent peer-reviewed model, Trout Unlimited estimates that 25 percent of the state’s stream miles would be stripped of protections against the dumping of dredged and fill materials. This includes 10,510 miles of precipitation-dependent streams, which supply public drinking water to Colorado residents. These waters also support world-class hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping opportunities.

Map of Colorado

The Nature Conservancy did a similar analysis of wetlands and found that 22 percent would be unprotected as a result of the Rule going into effect.

E&E News reports that more than 70 percent of U.S. waterways reviewed under the NWP Rule could be permanently damaged, according to Army Corps of Engineers data.

Stripped of federal protections under the new rule, these streams and wetlands in the Centennial State are at risk of being polluted and damaged by the construction of roads, bridges, shopping malls, housing developments, dams, and water diversions. That’s why the state water quality protection agency has begun an effort to find a solution.

A new state permit program would allow the Colorado Water Quality Control Division to oversee activities that discharge materials into streams and wetlands, while putting safeguards in place to ensure these activities don’t jeopardize Colorado’s clean water. This program would rely mostly on the “general” permits that most construction projects routinely obtain. Only a small number of projects would need a more rigorous individual permit. The program’s purpose would be to keep the level of protection that has existed for the preceding 40+ years.  By addressing the regulatory gap that the NWP Rule creates, Colorado also can protect its waters against shifting policies in Washington, D.C.

The TRCP is actively participating in a stakeholder process in support of Colorado’s efforts. We also will support the Biden Administration’s efforts to rewrite the NWP Rule and return to a system where seasonal streams and wetlands get the Clean Water Act protections they deserve. Until this happens, hunters and anglers will be there defending our most valuable resource to ensure future generations have access to quality habitat and better days on the water.

[If you want to see a timeline of how clean water policy was developed, click HERE.]

 

Photo by BLM-Colorado

 

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