A report from the US Geological Survey at the end of March brought dire news on the status of greater sage grouse, the gamebirds that have become a bellwether for the wild habitat of the sagebrush steppe. Not only has their population declined 80% range-wide since 1965 and 40% just since 2002, but also the current average annual rate of loss is now estimated at 3%, 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 (TRCP). “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 gamebirds.”
The development of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010 brought some optimism to sportsmen’s and conservation groups, offering incentives to private landowners through investment in sagebrush habitat conservation practices. At the time, the Sage Grouse Initiative was deemed an adequate response and strategy to hold off the mandates of an endangered species listing—and the subsequent political battles.
The TRCP, a broad coalition of hunting, fishing and conservation groups, is pushing for adequate funding, cooperation and conservation-plan implementation—and massive investments in restoration—to avoid the need for a future listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
“There’s still time to assess the situation and reverse these trends,” said Dr. Steve Williams, president of the TRCP partner Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “but it is getting more difficult for the Fish and Wildlife Service to defend and maintain their 2015 not-warranted finding for sage grouse.”