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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Protection reconsidered for sage grouse

The greater sage grouse, a chickenlike bird that depends on open stands of sagebrush for its survival, will be considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

It’s the second time around for the sage grouse, which includes populations in Eastern Washington’s Douglas and Grant counties and at the Yakima Training Center, an Army firing range.

In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that sage grouse didn’t need protection. On Tuesday, agency officials said they would reconsider the decision based on a recent court ruling.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said in December that the agency failed to use the “best science” when deciding not to list the species. Winmill also found that former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald used pressure and even altered scientific conclusions to keep the birds from being listed. MacDonald resigned last year.

First described in journals by Lewis and Clark during their 1804 expedition, sage grouse were once found in 16 Western and Midwestern states. The ground-dwelling birds have declined along with sagebrush habitat. They’re now found in about half of their historic range.

Eastern Washington’s two isolated populations are down to about 900 birds, said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Idaho, which sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its 2005 decision.

Sage grouse rely almost completely on sagebrush for food and protection. The bushes provide shelter from predators, nesting material and high-protein insects, which are critical in young chicks’ diets. In the winter, sage grouse eat sagebrush leaves and buds.

The birds are a mottled brown, black and white, which helps camouflage them. They weigh from 2 to 7 pounds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received 56 scientific publications on sage grouse and their habitat since the 2005 decision not to list them. Agency officials will review the new data, along with emerging threats, such as the large expanse of energy development occurring or proposed for the sage grouse’s range.

The agency plans to finish its review by December at the earliest. In court documents, officials noted that a key sage grouse study is due out in November, which could prompt an additional comment period and delay a decision.

Even the date is a point of contention. Marvel wants the agency to use the May 2009, date for a decision that was part of an earlier court stipulation.

“They want to keep the final decision in the hands of the Bush administration,” he said. “… It appears to us that the political intervention in this process is continuing.”

The matter will be heard Friday before a federal judge in Boise.

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