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Sage Grouse Census Could Change Debate on Listing

As a dozen western states hope to head off an endangered species listing next month for the greater sage grouse, an updated census of the ground-dwelling bird that is scheduled to be released later this month could show favorable upward trends.

The study was done by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to update earlier studies from 1965 until now that have tracked male sage grouse in their mating groupings, or "leks."

The greater sage grouse became a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010, but following a court settlement in 2011, the federal Department of Interior agreed to delay a decision on listing until the end of September (see Daily GPIMay 19).

"FWS contracted with WAFWA to examine population tends to assist the agency with our status review [of the sage grouse], so it will be considered along with other population data [in making the ESA listing decision]," an FWS spokesperson said.

A sage grouse coordinator at WAFWA reportedly told an association summer meeting in Reno, NV, that the recent statistics show a significant uptick in the sage grouse population in the last two years compared to declines in prior years.

"These are much larger sample sizes over longer periods than was available in 2008," a copy of the yet-to-be-released study said. The report covers seven areas across nine states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

On a state-by-state comparison, all of the states except California showed a marked increase in leks starting last year.

"The report is still in production; it should be released late next week," said San Stiver, sage grouse coordinator at WAFWA.

The lek count data shows an increase in male sage grouse from 49,397 in 2013 to 57,399 in 2014 and 80,284 males in 2015, Stiver told NGI.  “Those counts were conducted using about the same effort so they are relatively comparable, and our biologists did find more active leks and found some new leks (ones that were previously undiscovered) which increase the counts.”

Stiver cautioned that while the numbers counted increased substantially, the period for data collection was too short to label it a trend. “The most important part of the data is that numbers are not decreasing,” he said. In addition, this data doesn’t address threat levels to the birds; that analysis is being done by FWS, and it along with the population data will make up the agency’s final findings.

Congressional committees have debated with regulators and each other over the best way to protect the sage grouse, and to possibly avoid listing the bird on the federal ESA (see Daily GPIMay 6). 

Most recently, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead as part of a governors' consistency review by western states, at the end of last month lobbied federal regulators to seriously consider state plans for protecting the greater sage grouse (see Daily GPIAug. 3).

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