Article

Sage grouse disappearing in S.D.

While Eastern game bird aficionados are quick to announce that the ruffed grouse is the "king of upland birds," there is little doubt that the sage grouse can lay claim to the throne in the West. As the largest grouse species in North America, the Greater sage grouse is a massive bird, with males often exceeding 5 lbs in weight. Those who hunt the giant birds claim that a flushing sage grouse is akin to a small turkey taking flight at your feet.

While Eastern game bird aficionados are quick to announce that the ruffed grouse is the "king of upland birds," there is little doubt that the sage grouse can lay claim to the throne in the West.

As the largest grouse species in North America, the Greater sage grouse is a massive bird, with males often exceeding 5 lbs in weight. Those who hunt the giant birds claim that a flushing sage grouse is akin to a small turkey taking flight at your feet.

But sage grouse are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The first written account of a sage grouse was penned by Meriwether Lewis in June of 1805 as the Corps of Discovery pushed upstream on the Missouri River in Montana. The number of sage grouse began to decline as settlers and livestock moved in, and today the birds occupy just half of their original territory. Worse, populations have decreased across their limited range by 50 percent to 65 percent since 1965, and their numbers continue to drop by 2 percent on an annual basis.

Their precipitous decline has been linked to the overall transformation of the West; the continuing conversion of sagebrush communities to cropland, over-grazing by livestock and most recently the fragmentation of... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

While Eastern game bird aficionados are quick to announce that the ruffed grouse is the "king of upland birds," there is little doubt that the sage grouse can lay claim to the throne in the West.

As the largest grouse species in North America, the Greater sage grouse is a massive bird, with males often exceeding 5 lbs in weight. Those who hunt the giant birds claim that a flushing sage grouse is akin to a small turkey taking flight at your feet.

But sage grouse are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The first written account of a sage grouse was penned by Meriwether Lewis in June of 1805 as the Corps of Discovery pushed upstream on the Missouri River in Montana. The number of sage grouse began to decline as settlers and livestock moved in, and today the birds occupy just half of their original territory. Worse, populations have decreased across their limited range by 50 percent to 65 percent since 1965, and their numbers continue to drop by 2 percent on an annual basis.

Their precipitous decline has been linked to the overall transformation of the West; the continuing conversion of sagebrush communities to cropland, over-grazing by livestock and most recently the fragmentation of habitat through oil and natural gas exploration. Studies have also shown that sage grouse are highly susceptible to the West Nile virus, and the mosquito-transmitted disease has wreaked havoc on birds across the West, including portions of South Dakota.

The path of the Greater sage grouse came to a critical juncture on March 5, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the bird was warranted but precluded for listing under the Endangered Species Act because of higher priority listing actions. This designation establishes sage grouse as a "candidate species," meaning that states will continue to manage the species, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will provide an annual review of the management practices and overall health of the population.

Not all conservation groups were thrilled with the designation, however. The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project filed suit against the federal government after the decision - stating among other things that the "precluded" determination essentially sends the sage grouse to a "black hole" of other candidate species, which receive no real protection under the Endangered Species Act. Other groups - including the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks - see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision as an opportunity to focus time and money on a species that is feeling the pressures of a changing western landscape.

"With their designation now as a candidate species, sage grouse are going to be put under a magnifying glass," said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the Game, Fish and Parks in Rapid City. "It opens doors for both government and public organizations to take a look at remedying some of this situation and developing an effective management strategy."

Included in that remedy is the allocation of federal dollars to restore and protect sagebrush habitat in key sage grouse states, including South Dakota. Figures from 2007 indicate that South Dakota is home to some 1,500 sage grouse, existing mainly in pockets of habitat in Harding and Butte Counties along the western border of the state. Nationwide more than 60 percent of the sage grouse population resides on public land, but Kanta says that in South Dakota the vast majority of birds reside on private property, making communications with those landowners extremely important.

"Our studies have shown that habitat loss is the number one factor contributing to the decline of sage grouse in South Dakota," said Kanta. "We need to do a better job of introducing landowners to the different options available to them to preserve these critical areas of sagebrush habitat."
While the loss and fragmentation of habitat remains a real threat to sage grouse, hunting does not. South Dakota maintains a closely monitored season - typically two days in late September - and the number of birds harvested in the fall has no impact on the breeding population in the spring.

But other threats are looming for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat, namely the continuing development and exploration for energy resources. Kanta said that the Game, Fish and Parks is closely watching a proposed wind farm in Butte County, but adds that there is room for both energy development and sage grouse.

"We are absolutely not opposed to energy development, we just want to make sure that it is done with sage grouse and other wildlife in mind."
Ralph Rogers of the Montana-based Prairie Grouse Partnership agrees with Kanta that caution should prevail with regard to energy development in the West.

"Sage grouse and other wildlife are naturally wary of vertical structures because of their propensity to serve as hawk perches," said Rogers. "We believe that wind development in sage grouse areas will have permanent affects. We hope that wildlife will be considered in the placement of towers."

While Rogers is frustrated that the sage grouse population continues to shows signs of decline, he is hopeful that the designation as a candidate species will not only help the iconic bird rebound in numbers but will also create a shift in Western land use practices.

"This is a great opportunity to increase the visibility of sage grouse which has been such an important bird in terms of our country's natural and cultural histories," he said. "But the designation also sends the message that if 'business as usual' continues in areas of the West then the sage grouse will in fact become a listed species, which would have an enormous affect on energy exploration and other land uses in the west.

Sidebar:

Friday, April 23 is the deadline for landowners to enroll in sage grouse habitat incentives being offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Up to $16 million is available for sage grouse habitat projects in several key states, including South Dakota. For more information, log on to www.nrcs.usda.gov/


Source: http://www.argusleader.com/...

APR 21 2010
http://www.windaction.org/posts/25816-sage-grouse-disappearing-in-s-d
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