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New Sage Grouse Study May Add to Political Debate

Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno published a paper on Wednesday that may rekindle concern about the ability to allow oil/natural gas development throughout the West and still protect Sage Grouse habitat.

Dan Gibson and his co-researchers tracked greater sage grouse hens following mating season for nine years in Nevada, noting that most of the chicks didn’t survive. They published their findings in the scientific journal Condor: Ornithological Applications, and it could spark new concerns about oil/gas and mining development in the 11 western states where sage grouse habitat exists.

The researchers tracked collared birds to more than 400 nests, discounted abandoned ones and found a little more than one-third were successful, according to a summary of Gibson's research published in the Washington Post. Some 862 chicks were counted from about 100 hens, and about 700 chicks died less than two months after hatching.

The research comes a year after the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies completed an updated 1965-2015 census of the birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service (see Daily GPIAug. 6, 2015), finding that the population was growing in recent years. That census came shortly before the Obama administration decided not to list the birds under the Endangered Species Act and instead pursued cooperation with states and industry to protect their habitat (see Shale Daily, Sept. 22, 2015).

In June, Congress weighed in on the question of whether the agreement between the Obama administration and many western state governors for protecting sage grouse habitat was effective (see Daily GPIJune 29).

Republicans continue to be highly critical of the Obama administration's effort over the past year to implement the plan, which affects the energy industry. In contrast, Obama administration and state officials have told Congress the state-federal effort to protect habitat is working.

Gibson’s research identifies the vegetation characteristics that sage grouse hens look for to increase their number of offspring, information that can give land managers a better idea of the types of habitat most in need of protection.

The study concluded that areas with active sage grouse breeding grounds, or leks, that are correlated with high reproduction should be the highest conservation priority. For oil/gas developers, that may mean staying away from lands that also provide good natural resource prospects.

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