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Habitat loss means Washington sage grouse in trouble

In this April 20, 2013 photo, male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse, not pictured, on a lake outside Walden, Colo. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
In this April 20, 2013 photo, male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse, not pictured, on a lake outside Walden, Colo. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
By Luke Thompson Yakima Herald-Republic

One of Washington’s flashiest birds continues to face a grim outlook even as it shows signs of recovery in other states.

Sage grouse still provide quite a spectacle in the spring with stunning male displays at the Yakima Training Center, home to the state’s second biggest population of the birds. The training center is run by the U.S. Army, which is working to protect the birds and their shrub-steppe habitat on about 77,000 of the installation’s 327,000 acres.

Those efforts haven’t been enough to reverse a 30-year decline, and a slight increase in this year’s count hardly signifies success for the training center’s Wildlife Program Manager Colin Leingang.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Derek Stinson considers the sage grouse a “flagship” species for the shrub-steppe, much like the spotted owl is for the state’s troubled old-growth forests. Wildfires and other threats loom large as Leingang and others fight to save not only sage grouse in Washington, but the unique shrub-steppe habitat that is home to 350 different species of plants and animals.

“(We have) habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation at a rate and scale of which restoration efforts can’t keep up with,” Leingang said. “Both from a financial standpoint and/or logistics, and from actually trying to plant or seed that scale.”

Shrinking populations

Washington state’s sage grouse population is 710 birds, according to preliminary estimates this spring. That’s up from 510 birds in 2017, by far the lowest ever recorded. Stinson said the encouraging increase doesn’t yet signal a resurgence, especially at the Yakima Training Center, where the population of 112 still represents a decline of nearly 50 percent in the past three years.

Researchers base population counts on how many males they can find strutting and displaying their twin bright yellow throat sacs on common mating grounds, known as leks. That can lead to some variation in the count from year to year.

Stinson said the state expected its largest sage grouse population, in Douglas County, to grow because of an enhancement project on more than 70,000 acres. It declined from close to 1,200 sage grouse in 2010 to an estimate of 377 in 2017 before a significant increase to 580 sage grouse this spring.

“I’m not extremely optimistic about the future of sage grouse in Washington,” Stinson said. “Partly because of the fire issue and climate change, and the potential for the increase of fire frequency. And the frequency of droughts may increase in the future.”

Reintroduction efforts with 408 sage grouse brought in from four other states since 2006 also showed little hope for sustainability. Stinson said a population monitored by the Yakama Nation near Toppenish fell to just one male sighting this spring. Although efforts on the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area in Lincoln County offered slightly more promise, sage grouse numbers dropped to an estimated 21 birds after two years without additions to the population. The birds are native to the state.

Losing ground

Far more sage grouse live in Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada, and Stinson said those larger populations could suffer from changing federal policy that could allow oil companies and others into their habitat.

Survival in Washington will depend on state-led efforts, with contributions from the Army, private landowners and others. Officials say protecting habitat is a top priority, since the Wildlife Department estimates only about 8 percent of Washington’s historic shrub-steppe still exists.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s sagebrush ecosystem conservation coordinator Jessica Gonzales said given all the changes to the landscape, sage grouse have proved somewhat more resilient than expected. Expanding agriculture, as well as wildfires made worse by climate change and invasive species such as cheatgrass, leave the birds with limited nesting areas. That makes it easier for predators such as ravens, raptors and coyotes to prey on eggs and young.

Wildfires

Wildfires present a serious challenge. More than 87,000 acres burned from 2014-17 at the Yakima Training Center, including 38,703 last year, the highest number since 1996. The Boylston Fire in July burned 44,522 acres on post after starting outside the training center’s boundaries.

“They’ve burned onto post in the past and part of that issue, kind of west of the installation and south of the installation is this whole lack of a fire district,” Leingang said. “The term is coined as ‘no-man’s land’ and so when a fire starts it’s like, ‘whose fire is it? And who’s going to respond?’”

One group seeking to provide answers to those questions is a collaboration led by Gonzales called the Arid Lands Initiative, which hopes to establish its own fire protection associations. The coalition brings together federal, state, tribal and private entities to back conservation projects and create a more efficient way to stop wildfires from spreading.

The group works to protect shrub-steppe lands in Eastern Washington, most notably in the Moses Coulee area of Douglas County where the vast majority of Washington’s sage grouse live. Homeowners there can volunteer to take part in conservation projects. In exchange, they’re given a permit to avoid penalties incurred from harming the federally endangered pygmy rabbit during normal farming and ranching activities.

Other organizations, such as the Mule Deer Foundation, have committed resources to planting projects, and state chairwoman Rachel Voss notes their objectives often line up with sage grouse conservation efforts. But habitat restoration continues to be an uphill battle, especially since Leingang said it takes three to six decades for many sagebrush plants to fully mature and provide what sage grouse need to survive the winter.

The Yakima Training Center implemented a new policy in 2011 to improve its wildfire response by creating containment lines around the area where 90 percent of its fires start. Leingang said last year concluded the planting and seeding of sagebrush on 35,000 previously burned acres, but success has been mixed due to more fires and a heavy reliance on natural precipitation for the plants to grow.

Not giving up

Stinson’s 2016 progress report for the Wildlife Department indicated sage grouse would ?likely disappear from Washington without continued management efforts.

But those efforts haven’t lived up to expectations, and Stinson said state biologists will be “perplexed and discouraged” if the birds don’t rebound substantially in Douglas County over the next few years. At the training center, Leingang said just maintaining a steady population would be an accomplishment.

“To really reverse this trend on the short-term means we’ve got to protect what we’ve got,” Leingang said. “Then it would be some pretty labor intensive reintroduction and translocation efforts to bolster numbers. And then the habitat issues associated with the declining trends, that’s more of a long-term endeavor.”

It doesn’t help that sage grouse generally prefer the same type of flat areas with deeper soil that the Army needs for its training exercises. Strict policies prohibit activities on sage grouse habitat between midnight and 9 a.m. during the breeding season from Feb. 1 to May 15.

Other restrictions limit training until June 15, but not all conflicts can be avoided.

Stinson and others set the minimum number of sage grouse needed in Washington for a sustainable population at 3,200. The birds could be uplisted by the state from threatened to endangered if their population drops below 650 and stays there for multiple years. But that wouldn’t happen until the next review in 2021, and it’s unlikely the change would make any difference in terms of how sage grouse are managed, they said.

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