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Feds plan big investment in sage grouse, with or without listing

The federal government plans to spend more than $200 million over the next three years on programs to protect greater sage grouse in Western states, regardless of whether the bird receives federal protections, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday. Vilsack told The Associated Press that he wants to almost double protected habitat for the elegant chicken-sized bird, to 8 million acres by 2018. He also promised more will be done to limit residential development in sage grouse habitat and to restore wetlands used by the birds. AP reporters Matthew Brown and Gosia Wozniacka in Portland have a full report here.

Montana governor, federal agency sign sage grouse deal

THREATENED SPECIES — Gov. Steve Bullock signed an agreement today with the U.S. Department of Agriculture pledging cooperation on efforts to protect declining populations of greater sage grouse — and, in turn, avoid the economic and political turmoil should the grouse be listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The agreement signed at the Capitol in Helena calls for state, federal and local officials to meet annually to discuss sage grouse conservation. It includes no new spending or regulations, the Associated Press reports.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller said the agreement should help streamline and coordinate sage grouse conservation efforts on private land in the state. Seventy percent of sage grouse habitat in Montana is on private or state lands.

“It sets up the structure for really accelerating action on the ground,” Weller said of measures to help farmers and ranchers in the state voluntarily protect sage grouse habitat while maintaining grazing lands.

Sage grouse numbers fell dramatically across the western U.S. during the past several decades because of oil and gas drilling, residential and agricultural development and disease.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a Sept. 30 deadline to decide if the chicken-sized grouse needs federal protections, although Congress has blocked additional spending by the agency to put those protections in place.

Montana and other states want to demonstrate that sweeping federal protections aren’t needed.

Montana is the first state to sign such an agreement with the USDA regarding sage grouse. In addition to Bullock, the agreement was signed by representatives of the Agriculture Department and Montana’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

“Our economy, and our Montana way of life depends on all of us working together to ensure a bright future for the grouse and a continued thriving economy,” Bullock said. “The best possible outcome: the management of the bird is to stay within the state of Montana.”

Since 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service through a sage grouse program has invested nearly $300 million to conserve more than 4.4 million acres of sage grouse habitat in 11 western states in which sage grouse are found.

Weller said Monday that the conservation service plans to spend another $200 million throughout the 11 states, which was announced earlier this year. He did not say how much would go toward efforts in Montana, but he said officials are currently finalizing an investment strategy.

Bullock last year ordered restrictions on future oil drilling and other activities blamed for driving down sage grouse numbers, aligning Montana with other states rushing to head off federal intervention for the ground-dwelling bird. He also created a sage grouse oversight team in addition to the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program.

The legislature earlier this year passed the governor’s bill to establish a fund that in part will be used by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to hire at least five new employees to manage the program.

Idaho to share in projects designed to reduce wildfire risk

Thirteen states, including Idaho, will share in $10 million worth of land restoration projects designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced today. Eight of the states are in the West; others include Georgia, Florida, Virginia and the Carolinas. The projects are part of the Interior Department's Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Program intended to unite federal agencies, tribes, states and other groups to create fire-resilient landscapes, the AP reports.

In Idaho, $166,000 will go to the Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat Collaborative area for work designed to stop the encroachment of juniper that’s crowding out the native shrubs and other vegetation that provide prime habitat to sage grouse. The area has a mix of BLM, private and Idaho state lands; among those involved are the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game, Idaho Department of Lands, Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Owyhee Local Working Group, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, University of Idaho, and Owyhee County commissioners.

The project is part of Jewell’s strategy for restoring landscapes to mitigate the impacts of fire and climate change. AP reporter Keith Ridler has a full report here, and there's more info here.

Otter orders Idaho sage grouse plan

UPLAND BIRDS — Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has signed an executive order requiring state executive agencies to adopt Idaho’s Sage-Grouse Management Plan.

The plan demonstrates the state’s commitment to a viable sage grouse population while also maintaining predictable levels of use on public lands, Otter said in a statement today.

The plan approved by the Idaho Land Board in April aims to protect habitat by creating enforceable stipulations in state leases, permits and easements. On private lands, the plan contains voluntary practices.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to decide by Sept. 30 whether the sage grouse merits protections from the Endangered Species Act.

Idaho’s plan is meant to halt the decline of sage grouse populations without having to list the species.

Otter issues executive order to carry out sage grouse conservation plan

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter issued a five-page executive order today implementing his greater sage grouse conservation plan, which is aimed at conserving the bird and its habitat to avoid a listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Otter said the move “demonstrates Idaho’s commitment to maintaining a viable and healthy population of greater sage-grouse and the habitat they need to thrive in a balanced and sustainable way while maintaining predictable levels of use on our public lands.”

In a statement, he said, “Our fish and wildlife belong to the people of Idaho. We’re not waiting for a federal designation to do the right thing by the species, but at the same time I have an obligation to protect Idaho’s sovereignty and self-determination.”

The plan was developed by a task force Otter appointed in 2012; it covers 15 million acres in southern Idaho and includes measures to conserve the sage grouse and its habitat against threats from wildfire, invasive species, infrastructure construction, livestock grazing practices and more. You can read the executive order here.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell touts fire strategy aimed at protecting sagebrush ecosysem

U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell is making her fifth trip to Idaho today, where her visit included joining Gov. Butch Otter, BLM and Forest Service officials to sign a new firefighting strategy for the Great Basin region, including Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California, that focuses on protecting the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, home to the potentially endangered sage grouse and an array of other species.  

Jewell said, “2015 could be a tough one. We have climate change impacting landscapes across the country. It’s driving some of the drought – you’re seeing that particularly in California, as well as some parts of southern Oregon, as well as some parts here.” She said the key will be how much dry lightning hits. “Last year, Oregon got a boatload of dry lightning and they had a really rough year. We did not have it in some of the other areas. But the reality is we have longer, hotter fire seasons than we ever have before. … We have a need for firefighters for more months of the year, but our budget has not kept up.”

Jewell said the new wildfire strategy makes the sagebrush steppe ecosystem the No. 1 natural resource priority in the Great Basin, while focusing on four points:  Working collaboratively to reduce the size, severity and cost of rangeland fires; addressing the spread of invasive species; positioning resources for the most effective response, including pre-staging equipment in line with fire weather forecasts; and as always, focusing on protecting the life and safety of firefighters.

She praised Otter’s work on establishing range fire protection associations in Idaho to allow ranchers to coordinate with wildland firefighters and be first responders to fires on or near their ranching operations, helping stop them when they’re still small. Otter, whom Jewell warmly greeted as an old friend, said, “We now have five organizations that are out there representing 230 ranchers that are our initial attack. Every year, we get a better report about how many fires we were able to hit and stop while they’re small. … It’s been a program that’s already started to pay huge dividends for us.”

Jewell also was joined by Mike Guerry, a rancher and head of the Three Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association, who said the system is working. “In the beginning, there were some hesitations on both sides,” he said. “That didn’t last very long – probably the first fire.” Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said, “If we don’t work together, then we don’t succeed. On this issue, on the sagebrush ecosystem and on the sage grouse, I think we are together.”

Jewell joined the other officials at the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center in Boise’s foothills for the announcement; birds twittered in the distance and grasses and foliage swayed behind her as the sun moved in and out of the clouds. The center is on the popular Ridge to Rivers trail system, on which Boiseans hike, mountain bike, run, stroll and walk their dogs amid a natural setting that’s right on the edge of neighborhoods. “This is about saving this ecosystem for future generations,” Jewell said. “You all understand here, and from my old day job at REI I certainly understand the economic benefits of having wonderful places like this. … This is what urban areas need to attract the kind of companies that Boise’s been able to attract because you have wonderful landscapes in your backyard.”

She said, “As we look out there and there’s some sagebrush out there, people can look out there and say, ‘There’s nothing there.’ And the reality is, when you talk to the scientists, there is. There are 350 species that depend on that habitat. Game species like mule deer, pronghorn. The greater sage grouse, yes, but also the bald eagle and many other species that call this home. Fire is the No. 1 threat to this ecosystem in the Great Basin states. And as we see the effects of climate change, we see much greater risk to these sagebrush ecosystems.”

AP reporters Keith Ridler and Matthew Volz have a full report here on the secretary’s strategy and how it fits in with the fight to keep the sage grouse from being listed as endangered.

Studies offer grim prospects for woodland caribou survival

ENDANGERED SPECIES — In case you've developed some optimism over man's ability to live within the means of Planet Earth, here's some recent insight on our impacts to wildlife.

Researchers warn that B.C.'s woodland caribou headed for extinction
The five herds of woodland caribou in northeast British Columbia are in danger of going extinct, according to researchers from the University of Northern B.C. and the province's Ecosystem Protection and Sustainability branch. The province's efforts have not help, including a controversial wolf cull the study discounted as addressing a secondary threat to the caribou. Habitat fragmentation caused by oil and gas work, logging and other industrial development are identified the primary driver of the species' demise.
—Toronto Globe and Mail

Another report on sage grouse tangles Wyoming management of species
The results of a study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts of sage grouse in the American West found that in Wyoming's Powder River Basin the number of sage grouse fell from 6,804 in 2007 to 1,651 in 2013, a 76 percent decline that could lead the species in the basin to extinction within the next 30 years.
—Casper Star-Tribune

Sage grouse recovery still getting mixed reviews, especially in Utah

WILDLIFE — We can get to work on adjustments to keep this country hospitable to all native species, including us, or we can dig our heads deeper into the sand.

Outdoor writer Brett Prettyman of the Salt Lake Tribune takes a look at where both inclinations meet in Utah:

Threat of listing may be enough to save sage grouse
The threat of listing of sage grouse for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act motivated the raising of $424 million for restoration efforts since 2010 and protected 4.4 million acres of sage grouse habitat in the 11 Western states where the species is found.

Meanwhile, Utah's federal and state lawmakers continue to work for a political blockade to listing, with U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop adding an amendment to a Defense bill last week that would bar the listing of the species for a decade. State legislators have set aside $1 million for the state attorney general to fight such a listing.

New study shows western sage grouse populations fell by more than half from ‘07 to ‘13

There’s bad news for the West on the sage grouse front, Idaho Statesman Rocky Barker reports today: A new study led by a University of Idaho scientist shows sage grouse populations fell by more than half from 2007 to 2013. The study found that the number of breeding males counted on leks — grouse mating sites — fell by 56 percent in that time in 11 western states, from 109,990 to 48,641.

Barker writes that’s bad news for the 11 states seeking to develop conservation plans to keep the grouse from being listed as endangered, an move that would have ramifications for land use across the West. His full report is online here. The authors did acknowledge that sage grouse numbers are cyclical, Barker writes, and that the birds may be in the bottom end of the cycle. State fish and game officials in several of the 11 states affected say they have seen numbers rise since 2013.

Idaho on board with sage grouse conservation plan

THREATENED SPECIES — Idaho officials have approved a plan to protect habitat for greater sage grouse on state endowment lands as part an effort to avoid a federal listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

The Associated Press reports that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and four other statewide elected officials on the Idaho Land Board on Tuesday voted 5-0 to adopt the 82-page Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan that details conservation measures developed by the Idaho Department of Lands.

The document now goes to federal authorities who face a Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether to propose greater sage grouse as needing protections that could limit ranching and other activities in 11 Western states.

Important sage grouse habitat is found on 700,000 acres of Idaho endowment lands, about 44 percent of endowment rangeland in Idaho.

Land Board unanimously endorses sage grouse conservation plan for endowment lands

A plan for conservation of the greater sage grouse on state endowment lands, endorsed unanimously by the state Land Board on Tuesday, is drawing generally positive reviews, the AP reports. "I think Gov. Otter is serious," John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert, told Associated Press reporter Keith Ridler after reviewing the 82-page document. "And the state is serious."

John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League called the state's plan an important step forward, and praised its plan for trading endowment land that contains sage grouse habitat for federal land not considered key habitat, though he had concerns that it did not stop or delay energy leasing on the land.

The plan aims to protect habitat by creating enforceable stipulations in state leases, permits and easements. On private lands, it outlines voluntary practices. It’s aimed at heading off a federal endangered or threatened species listing for the greater sage grouse, on which federal authorities are scheduled to rule by Sept. 30. You can read Ridler’s full report here.

Sage grouse protections falling short, biologists say

THREATENED SPECIES — The government is preparing insufficient protections for a ground-dwelling bird that has declined significantly over the past century and soon will face a possible endangered species listing, according to 11 biologists who have studied the greater sage grouse.

Federal agencies have abandoned science-based conservation measures in favor of “more elastic, subjective measures” inadequate to address threats to the species, the scientists wrote Thursday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Here's more from the story moved by the Associated Press:

“We strongly encourage you to direct federal planners to finalize conservation plans that prescribe objective, measureable and robust conservation measures based on the best available science,” the letter said.

Federal agencies including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have adopted sufficient protection for the bird, an Interior Department spokeswoman said.

“Interior believes strong protections in the BLM management plan are an important part of successful conservation of the greater sage grouse, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is working in close collaboration with them to ensure the best outcome for both the bird and the Western landscape it embodies,” said the spokeswoman, Jessica Kershaw.

The Agriculture Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Greater sage grouse inhabit 11 states. Their numbers have declined from perhaps well over 1 million in pre-settlement times to no more than 500,000 today.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide by Sept. 30 whether the bird warrants protection as a threatened or endangered species, though Congress has withheld spending to implement any such protection.

In the meantime, the Bureau of Land Management continues to amend local-level planning documents to include protections for the greater sage grouse. Those changes fail to incorporate science-based recommendations for regulating oil and gas drilling, mining, livestock grazing, prescribed burns and other activity near sage grouse breeding areas, the scientists wrote.

Those signing included William Baker and Jeffrey Beck at the University of Wyoming and Edward Garton and Kerry Reese at the University of Idaho.

“We support the federal planning process and are prepared to assist your departments in developing measures to conserve and recover greater sage grouse, but federal planners must commit to science-based planning to achieve this goal,” the scientists wrote.

Idaho plan seeks to protect sage grouse habitat

THREATENED SPECIES —  The effort continues to avoid the restrictions that would go along with having an endangered native bird on western prairies.

The Idaho Department of Lands has put forward a draft plan to protect sage grouse habitat on state endowment land as part an effort to avoid a federal listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

The state agency that manages more than 2.4 million acres last week released the 33-page document that’s intended to guide activities on the nearly 700,000 acres of state land deemed important habitat for the football-sized bird, according to the Associated Press.

The plan has critics, especially regarding its guidelines for grazing.

The state agency is taking comments on its Proposed Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan through March 2. Later in March, the Idaho Land Board and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will vote on whether to approve the plan.

According to the AP:

The plan aims to protect habitat by creating enforceable stipulations in state leases, permits and easements. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely take Idaho’s plan into consideration when the agency makes a decision about listing sage grouse. That decision is expected in the fall.

“What the Service is looking for is mechanisms that provide certainty,” said Tom Schultz, director of the Idaho Department of Lands. “Just saying we’re going to do something without having mechanisms to make sure they get done won’t work.”

Idaho’s plan covers an array of activities that occur on state lands. Those include solar, wind and geothermal energy projects as well as oil and gas exploration and development. Mining and grazing are also covered as is the granting of rights of way. Also included are fire prevention and mitigation efforts to minimize loss of sage grouse habitat.

Agency officials said the plan complements Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s sage grouse plan he submitted for federal officials to consider as the government eyes protections. A listing could have ramifications for agriculture and energy, possibly damaging the economies of the 11 Western states where the bird resides.

In Idaho, about 10.5 million acres are designated either core or important sage grouse habitat. Of those 10.5 million acres, about 700,000 acres are Idaho endowment lands, or about 6.5 percent.

While Idaho endowment land with sage grouse habitat represents a small percentage of sage grouse habitat overall, the 700,000 acres nonetheless represent 44 percent of endowment rangeland in Idaho. So a sage grouse listing would likely decrease how much money the state can produce from its endowment rangelands.

The money generated from endowment land mostly goes to public schools. The Idaho Department of Lands is tasked with producing the most amount of money from the endowment land over the long run. That means the state agency is now trying to find a way to meet its mandate while also protecting sage grouse habitat.

“It’s a balance,” Schultz said, “but we think in the long run avoiding a listing is a good thing. If the bird gets listed, we will still have to have a strategy where we do not take birds.”

Schultz said his agency doesn’t have authority over private land but the agency’s plan contains conservation measures for private landholders that will be voluntary. A listing of sage grouse would also require private land owners to avoid activities that harm the bird or its habitat.

Travis Bruner of Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group based in central Idaho, said the plan lacks credibility when it comes to cattle grazing.

The plan states that, “Grazing has been determined to not be a primary threat to sage-grouse in Idaho.” The plan also calls for targeted grazing to reduce fire fuels and the use of grazing to help restore areas burned in rangeland fires.

“They seem to deny that there are any negative impacts at all on sage grouse due to grazing,” Bruner said. “That’s contrary to science.”

The state agency is taking comments on its Proposed Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan through March 2. Later in March, the Idaho Land Board and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will vote on whether to approve the plan.

Report: sage grouse need large buffer from drilling

WILDLIFE — A government study with significant implications for the U.S. energy industry says the breeding grounds of a struggling bird species need a 3-mile or larger buffer from oil and gas drilling, wind farms and solar projects.

The Associated Press reports that’s a much larger protective zone for the greater sage grouse than some states and federal agencies have adopted as the Obama administration weighs new protections for the bird.

The ground-dwelling bird ranges across 11 Western states. Its population dropped sharply in recent decades due to disease, pressure from the energy industry, wildfires and other factors.

Here's the rest of a still-evolving story by AP writer Matthew Brown:

Monday’s finding from the U.S. Geological Survey comes as state and federal officials scramble to come up with conservation measures to protect the grouse ahead of a court-ordered September 2015 decision on protections.

The USGS report represents a compilation of scientific studies aimed at seeing what it takes to protect the bird.

It was requested by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees millions of acres of sage grouse habitat and also regulates the energy industry across much of the West.

It said a buffer of at least a 3.1-mile radius around sage grouse breeding sites known as leks would provide considerable protections for the bird. That radius would equal a circle around the leks covering 30 square miles.

By comparison, Montana and Wyoming have adopted management plans for the bird that call for a buffer of six-tenths of a mile around leks in key sage grouse habitat. That’s an area of less than 4 square miles.

The USGS did not recommend specific management recommendations. But survey scientists said it should help the Interior Department as it crafts a conservation strategy for the birds.

Carol Schuler, USGS senior science adviser, said that land managers also need to take into consideration local conditions across the grouse’s sprawling, 257,000-square-mile habitat.

“The buffer distances in this report can be useful in developing conservation measures, but should be used in conjunction with conservation planning that considers other factors,” she said.

A related bird, the Gunnison sage grouse of Utah and Colorado, received federal protection as a threatened species on Nov. 12.

Feds list Gunnison sage grouse threatened

ENDANGERED SPECIES — The Gunnison sage grouse will be listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today.

The listing was a downgrade from an earlier agency recommendation — and an acknowledgement of work by Native American tribes and private land owners in Colorado and Utah to cut the threats to the bird in an effort to avoid an endangered listing, according to a Salt Lake Tribune story by Brett Prettyman.

“Efforts by Utah and Colorado, private landowners and tribes have reduced the threats to the bird,” said wildlife service director Dan Ashe. “These investments and protections that have been put in place will pay enormous dividends in the future.”

Wednesday’s announcement left conservationists and state wildlife managers disappointed, but for different reasons. Utah wildlife officials want no federal protection and the wildlife conservation groups want the endangered listing.

The listing comes with an option for a special rule that allows federal officials to relax some ESA restrictions to allow ranchers, farmers and landowners in Colorado and Utah committed to grouse conservation to continue their practies without new restrictions.

Gunnison sage grouse were recognized as a separate species from Greater sage grouse in 2000 and were soon after designated as a candidate for listing under the ESA.

A small percentage of the estimated 4,700 Gunnison sage grouse population inhabits two areas in San Juan County near Monticello. The majority of the birds live in southwestern Colorado.

Conservation advocates say “threatened” status does not provide enough protection for the birds.

“Imperiled by irresponsible grazing, oil and gas drilling, residential development, roads, powerlines and the cumulative impacts of these threats, the fewer than 5,000 remaining Gunnison sage grouse need the strongest possible protections to ensure they survive and recover,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The science is clear: This spectacular dancing bird is endangered and should be afforded the highest level of protection.”

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan, however, says more can be done to protect the birds without a federal listing.

“Placing the bird under the oversight of the federal government will greatly reduce our ability to help the bird,” Sheehan said. “Putting the bird under the management authority of the federal government will create roadblocks that will make it difficult to complete work to help the species.”

While Utah and Colorado have provided impressive efforts to restore the species, Ashe said the Fish and Wildlife Service is bound to make listing decisions based on the best available science.

“The law asked us to consider the current and foreseeable future,” Ashe said. “We believe the best science points that while not facing an emminent risk of extinction, which would warrant an endangered listing, that a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act is the appropriate conclusion.”

Colorado governor John Hickenlooper indicated earlier this week his state would sue if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grouse as endangered or threatened.

The birds, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, were historically found in the Four Corners area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Gunnison sage grouse are about 1/3 smaller than Greater sage grouse and males show distinct, white barring on their tail feathers.

 

Conference seeks sage grouse solutions

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Some of the nation's top public lands officials and rangeland scientists have gathered in Boise to try to figure out what can be done to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing of sage grouse. The three-day Sage Grouse and Rangeland Wildfire in the Great Basin Conference opened Wednesday with remarks from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze. Mike Connor, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, also attended the opening. Early remarks focused on finding collaboration among federal, state and private entities as massive wildfires and invasive species threaten a fragmented sage grouse habitat. The conference is playing out as the Fish and Wildlife Service faces a deadline next year on whether the chicken-sized bird needs federal protection.

Wildlife groups sue for wolverine protections

ENDANGERED SPECIES — Making it three-in-a-row posts on environmental lawsuits —- a coalition of advocacy groups today challenged the government’s denial of federal protections for the snow-loving wolverine, filing a lawsuit that contends officials ignored evidence a warming climate will eliminate denning areas for the so-called “mountain devil.”

The two previous posts covered:

Here's the rest of the wolverine story filed today by Matthew Brown of the Associated Press in Billings:

An estimated 250 to 300 wolverines survive in the Lower 48 states. The elusive but ferocious members of the weasel family raise their young in deep mountain snowfields that many scientists say could be at risk of disappearing as the climate changes.

After proposing protections for the species last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August abruptly reversed course. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said at the time there was too much uncertainty in computer climate change models to justify protections.

Monday’s lawsuit charges that the agency acted illegally by ignoring the best available science on wolverines. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula by attorneys for Earthjustice representing eight wildlife advocacy groups.

The lawsuit names as defendants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agency director Dan Ashe and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said it is agency protocol not to comment on pending litigation.

Some wolverine researchers have predicted that almost two-thirds of the species’ denning habitat will disappear by 2085.

The case carries potential ramifications for other species affected by climate change — including Alaska’s bearded seals, the Pacific walrus and dozens of species of corals — as scientists and regulators grapple with limits on computer climate models.

Once found throughout the Rocky Mountains and in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, wolverines were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the 1930s due to unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns.

In the decades since, they largely have recovered in parts of the West, but not in other parts of their historical range.

They are currently found in portions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Individual wolverines have been documented in Colorado and California, but there has no evidence of breeding populations in those states.

Larger populations of wolverines live in Alaska and Canada. Those animals were never proposed for federal protection.

Judge: BLM violated grazing laws in SW Idaho — again

THREATENED SPECIES — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management once again violated federal laws when it issued grazing permits instead of analyzing how grazing could harm sage grouse in four allotments in south-central Idaho, a federal judge ruled today.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the BLM failed to consider stopping grazing in any of the proposed management plans in the agency’s Burley Field Office.

The BLM failed to analyze existing sage grouse habitat conditions in the four allotments, Winmill wrote, which he described as “particularly troubling” because the species is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

He also wrote that the four allotments are degraded by livestock grazing.

“In this case, the (environmental assessment) failed to identify reasonable alternatives,” the ruling said. “The existing grazing levels were contributing to sage grouse habitat degradation and yet the EA evaluated no alternative that would have reduced grazing levels and/or increased restrictions on grazing.”

The decision is round two of a lawsuit led by conservation group Western Watersheds Project that is challenging nearly 600 BLM grazing allotments spread across southern Idaho.

“It is very clear the BLM especially is not doing what’s right for sage grouse and not reversing the decline of sage grouse habitat,” said Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator at the Boise office of Western Watersheds Project. “We have declining sage grouse populations. We didn’t get there because of oil and gas, we got there because of grazing. Grazing is the biggest impact on sage grouse, at least in Idaho and many other places.”

Winmill agreed that the BLM is allowed to automatically renew grazing permits without conducting lengthy environmental reviews. However, it must still comply with federal laws requiring the agency to consider ongoing rangeland degradation and observe the Fundamental of Rangeland Health regulations during allotment renewal.

The BLM is currently reviewing the decision, agency spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said.

“The BLM wants to manage livestock consistent with our standards and our multiple-use mission,” she said. “We’ll follow his decision accordingly.”

Sage grouse are a chicken-sized bird known for its elaborate mating display. Besides Idaho, the bird is found in 10 other Western states.

Sage grouse ruling finds BLM improperly issued grazing permits

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management once again violated federal laws when it issued grazing permits instead of analyzing how grazing could harm sage grouse in four allotments in south-central Idaho. In a ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the BLM failed to consider stopping grazing in any of the proposed management plans in the agency's Burley Field Office. The decision is round two of a lawsuit led by conservation group Western Watersheds Project that is challenging nearly 600 BLM grazing allotments spread across southern Idaho. Winmill agreed that the BLM is allowed to automatically renew grazing permits without conducting lengthy environmental reviews. However, it must still comply with federal laws requiring the agency to study rangeland degradation.

Montana proposes rules to protect sage grouse

THREATENED SPECIES — Montana is trying to head off restrictive endangered species protections for a once abundant prairie species.

Montana governor announces sage grouse protection plan
On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the plan to protect sage grouse that includes a "no-occupancy" zone for six-tenths of a mile around active breeding areas in Montana, smaller than the one-mile zone recommended by an advisory council but larger than that recommended by the oil and gas industry.
— Missoulian

Montana offers sage grouse plan as deadline looms

THREATENED SPECIES — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has ordered restrictions on future oil drilling and other activities blamed for driving down sage grouse populations.

With today’s executive order, Montana joins other Western states rushing to head off federal intervention with the birds, according to a story by the Associated Press.

See the full story below.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday ordered restrictions on oil drilling and other activities blamed for driving down sage grouse populations as Montana falls into step with states across the West rushing to head off federal intervention for the ground-dwelling bird.

The order establishes no-occupancy zones to protect the birds that extend six-tenths of a mile in all directions around active sage grouse breeding grounds. Roads could not be built in those areas, and oil exploration would be allowed only on a seasonal basis when the breeding grounds are not active.

The restrictions — similar to rules in place in Wyoming — are aimed at preventing disturbances that could disrupt breeding success for the chicken-sized birds.

But the no-occupancy zones are far smaller than the 1-mile radius recommended in January by an advisory council established by the governor. Representatives of the oil and gas industry had pushed for the smaller area.

Sage grouse range across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. The birds have lost more than half their historic habitat to agriculture, energy exploration and other development. They also suffer periodic fatal outbreaks of West Nile virus.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a September 2015 deadline to make an initial determination on whether sage grouse should be added to the list of threatened and endangered species. Before that date arrives, Montana and other states hope to demonstrate that sweeping federal protections aren’t needed because of measures already in place at the local level.

That’s what happened with another Montana species proposed for federal protections — Arctic grayling. The cold-water fish recently were denied protections by federal officials who cited work being done in Montana to restore their population.

Sage grouse are known for an elaborate mating ritual in which males strut around breeding grounds known as leks and puff out their breasts — a colorful display meant to attract females and drive away other males.

Last year’s count of male sage grouse on leks in Montana was the lowest recorded since 1980.

The changes between the council’s recommendation and Bullocks’s order were downplayed by Janet Ellis with Montana Audubon, a member of the governor’s advisory council. Ellis called the order “a place to start” and said she was told by state officials future adjustments could be made as needed.

“(Sage grouse) are the iconic, Big Sky Country species because they depend on landscapes that are sage brush as far as the eye can see,” Ellis said. “The ultimate goal is to maintain our sage grouse populations in the state of Montana. This program allows us to do that.”

Montana Petroleum Association executive director Dave Galt said his group prodded the state to adopt a smaller no-occupancy zone after the council’s recommendations were announced in January. He said oil and gas companies still would have to curtail some their work in order to comply.

“It’s going to impact everyone. But we believe, based on the experience in Wyoming, that we can still operate under these conditions,” Galt said.

In response to the bird’s low population, Montana wildlife commissioners in July closed all or parts of 32 counties to sage-grouse hunting. They also shortened the hunting season from two months to one.

Idaho scales back sage grouse hunting season

HUNTING — Reacting to concerns about sage grouse being headed toward endangered species status, Idaho has approved a restrictive 2014 hunting season for the once prolific prairie birds.

The season will run from Sept. 20-26, with a daily bag limit of one bird, and a possession limit of two birds. That's similar to seasons sent in recent years.  But the area where the grouse had be hunted in southern Idaho has been reduced.

Sage-grouse are proposed for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act; primarily due to habitat loss from wildfire, human infrastructure and invasive plants like cheat grass. Sage-grouse experts have determined that carefully regulated hunting is not a primary threat to populations. Idaho Fish and Game officials say they monitor sage-grouse annually to ensure hunting will not compromise the population.

The 2014 season will take place in most of the same areas as last year’s hunt with the exception of a new closure in the Greater Curlew Valley, which covers most of Power and Oneida Counties, and a portion of Cassia County.  Males at sage-grouse leks in this area have declined 53 percent since 2011.

The Sage-grouse Seasons and Rules brochures, including a map of areas open to sage-grouse hunting, will be available soon at all license vendors, Fish and Game offices, and on Fish and Game’s website.

Idaho considers scaling back sage grouse hunting

HUNTING — Idaho is considering more restrictions on hunting sage grouse, including closures on south-state areas where the number of males at breeding grounds has declined more than 50 percent in three years.

Sage-grouse are proposed for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act; primarily due to habitat loss from such things as wildfire and invasive plants like cheat grass, department officials say. "Sage-grouse experts have determined that carefully regulated hunting is not a primary threat to populations, and Fish and Game closely monitors sage-grouse annually to ensure hunting will not compromise the population," the agency said in media release.

Idaho Fish and Game is seeking public input on sage-grouse hunting proposals through Aug. 5. Upland bird managers will present sage-grouse hunting season recommendations to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission at their Aug. 11 meeting. 

Recommendations are based on the current 3-year running average of male sage-grouse counted at leks (breeding sites) to counts from 1996–2000 when Idaho began intensified surveys statewide. Current sage-grouse lek data indicate that many populations could be hunted at the “restrictive” level. 

Idaho is considering two options for the 2014 season:

  • Option A: no change from the 2013 season.
    • Restrictive: Seven-day, one-bird daily limit statewide within sage-grouse range, except in designated closed areas, Sept. 20-26.
    • Closed: East Idaho Uplands area in southeastern Idaho; Washington and Adams counties; Eastern Owyhee County and western Twin Falls County; and Elmore County.
  • Option B: same as Option A, but would add a new closure in parts of Bannock, Cassia, Oneida, and Power counties.  Males at leks in this area have declined by 53% since 2011.

Montana closing areas to sage grouse hunting

HUNTING — Having grown up in eastern Montana, where huge coveys of sage grouse were common sights, this is a jaw-dropper:

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a plan Thursday to close all or parts of 32 counties to sage-grouse hunting and to shorten the hunting season from two months to one.

Commissioners voted unanimously for the plan in response to low numbers from this spring’s count of the game birds on their breeding grounds. The count was the lowest since 1980, and the federal government is considering listing the bird as a threatened or endangered species next year across the West.

  • Hunters killed more than 2,800 sage grouse in Montana in 2012, compared with about 45,000 in 1983.

Loss of habitat is the primary reason the prairie grouse species has declined, but state wildlife officials say hunting can accelerate the decline once the population dips to a certain level.

The state’s management plan calls for closures if the number of male sage grouse drops below 45 percent of the long-term average count for three years. Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency officials say two of the state’s management zones are below that threshold this year, and the third is hovering right at it.

The closures include eastern Montana, the area in the northern part of the state above U.S. Highway 2 and isolated populations such as the Shields Valley.

That will leave a swath of 13 counties across the central part of the state and six southwestern Montana counties open to hunting sage grouse this fall. Eleven western and northwestern counties are considered out of the sage grouse’s range and were already closed to hunting.

The commission also approved guidelines to reopening the closed hunting grounds. The public process for reopening an area can begin once the count exceeds the 45 percent long-term average for three years, or is higher than that average count in any given year.

According to the Associated Press:

Agency officials earlier this year proposed canceling the 2014 hunt, but they came up with this new plan after receiving more than 200 comments, mostly negative. Hunting groups reluctantly agreed with the changed proposal.

“Hunting isn’t the reason sage grouse is in decline in Montana or the rest of the West. It’s habitat loss,” said Ben Deeble of the Big Sky Upland Game Bird Association. What’s more, he added, banning hunting hasn’t proven to be an effective way to restore population numbers.

Sage grouse live in sagebrush and grasslands. They are known for gathering in spring in breeding grounds called leks, where the males puff themselves out and dance for females searching for mates.

Idaho won’t kill ravens to save sage grouse, yet

WILDLIFE — Decisions, decisions.

Idaho delays plan to kill ravens to save sage grouse for a year
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services missed its deadline to complete an environmental review of Idaho's plan to kill up to 4,000 ravens to help increase the number of sage grouse in the state, and for that reason, the state cannot implement the plan until next year.
—Twin Falls Times-News

Montana may curtail hunting of sage grouse

HUNTING — Here's some disturbing news from Montana, which we might have considered to be the "last best place" for sage grouse:

With preliminary results from Montana’s spring surveys showing a continued population decline of the state’s largest native upland game bird, wildlife officials will seek to close sage grouse hunting for the 2014 season.

Read on for the details that will be presented to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission meeting in Fort Peck on Thursday, May 22.

Endangered species issues stacking up in West

WILDLIFE — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a heaping plate of critter issues to consider across the country, with some very high-profile portions centered in the West:

Western states worry that sage-grouse listing could curb economy
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mulls protection of sage grouse, western states have put in place their own plans to protect the species as there are concerns that federal measures could halt grazing, mining and energy development on sage-grouse habitat.
—Washington Post

A four-year study done by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks of sage grouse in Powder and Carter counties found that the species is doing well in the southeastern counties in areas well-used for grazing.
—Associated Press

USFWS mines public comments on wolf delisting for new data
Idaho U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson said he believed that if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides not to remove wolves from the endangered species list, Congress will step in and give states more authority to manage wolves, while Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, who said he does not believe the federal agency relied on the best science when proposing to delist the species, said he said if Congress does decide to give states more management authority, it will be a political, not a scientific decision.
—Portland Oregonian

Federal judge in Montana orders USFWS to write Canada lynx plan
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 30 days to submit its proposed recovery plan for the Canada lynx.
 —Missoulian

Researchers play chicken with sage grouse radios

WILDLIFE — My Sunday Outdoors stories about the fascinating grouse species of the West were packed with information about these novel birds, but a ton of details litter the editing room floor, so to speak.

For example, before they placed GPS transmitters on valuable sage grouse released in Washington last month, Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists practiced and fine-tuned the fitting process on a chicken at the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area shop (photo above).

"The group learned how to place the GPS transmitter/harness assembly onto a bird, and adjust for proper transmitter location and harness tension," said Juli Anderson, Northeastern Washington Wildlife Area Complex manager.

Idaho killing some ravens to boost sage grouse

WILDLIFE — Ravens will feel the heat for being too good at what they do; the plan is a temporary reprieve for a threatened species.

 Idaho to poison ravens in 3 areas to help sage-grouse populations
Ravens pose a threat to sage grouse populations in Idaho because they eat sage grouse eggs, and the state's wildlife agency has obtained permission to remove as many as 4,000 ravens over the next two years by putting out poisoned chicken eggs in three areas of the state where sage grouse numbers are in steep decline: near Idaho National Laboratory in Arco, the Curlew National Grasslands and in Washington County near the Oregon border.
—Twin Falls Times-News

Feds work to keep sage grouse off endangered species list

WILDLIFE — There's great potential here:

NRCS program hopes to bridge public-private divide to protect sage grouse
Next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on whether the sage grouse should be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and as part of an effort to protect habitat for the species in 11 western states, the Natural Resources and Conservation Service is working with private landowners who own 25 million of sage grouse habitat in those states, including in Idaho.
— Idaho Statesman