The timing of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to propose listing of the greater sage-grouse as a threatened or endangered species is coinciding with the presidential election and the rapid expansion of the influential oil and gas industry.
Controversy over the birds, once numbering in the millions in the western U.S. and Canada, has been simmering for years. FWS estimates they are at 1% to 31% of their historical levels, and most of the warring factions agree that the birds are in trouble. However, there is sharp disagreement over whether the birds can recover through fledgling voluntary management programs, or if listing under the Endangered Species Act is necessary.
FWS says it will try to announce its decision whether to propose a listing of threatened or endangered by Dec. 29, 2004, though that date could slip a few weeks or months. FWS, Diane Katzenberger, 303-236-4578; Greater Sage-Grouse web page (includes a map of historical and current range)
If Bush is re-elected, a coalition of environmentalists who triggered the FWS timing through their petitions for a decision expect the agency won't propose threatened or endangered status. If that's the case, some environmentalists may sue. Western Environmental Law Center, Amy Atwood, 541-485-2471 x105.
Resolution of a suit may require a comprehensive, impartial assessment, now unavailable, of whether the dozens of sage habitat management programs now in some stage of implementation by various public and private parties will effectively prevent extinction of the birds. A few environmental groups support some of the management programs, but many say they aren't effective enough, since they are unenforceable, geographically limited, and underfunded. American Lands Alliance, Mark Salvo, 503-757-4221; Sagebrush Sea Campaign.
Many industries (oil and gas, grazing, agriculture, mining, developers, etc.) also prefer the voluntary management programs over a listing of threatened or endangered. Partnership for America, Jim Sims, 303-278-4666; American Gas Association, Peggy Laramie, 202-824-7204.
The current threat to the grouse (and to several hundred other animal and plant species closely linked to sage) is due in large part to a wide range of impacts during the past 150 years, including major expansion of agriculture, grazing, mining, military facilities, and general development. Other current threats include drought, wildfires, and West Nile virus. Additional destruction and fragmentation of essential sage habitat by oil and gas operations could be the last straw for the birds, says Western Environmental Law Center's Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, 505-751-0351.
Environmental Working Group recently released a study documenting about 230 million acres of public lands around the West that are leased or being actively drilled for oil and gas.
Almost all lands that are current sage-grouse habitat are subject now and in the future to oil and gas drilling (much of NV and WY, southeast OR, southern ID, eastern MT, western CO, northern UT, and pockets in central WA, northeast CA, and northwest SD. In addition, it appears that pockets in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan in Canada are subject to the same pressures, though those two provinces and the Canadian government have declared the grouse endangered).
Buffer zones of two miles between land disturbance and critical grouse habitat could help reduce problems, say environmentalists, but current practice often allows disturbances much closer.
BLM, which manages a high percentage of both the remaining critical grouse habitat and current and future oil and gas lands, is seen as the agency likely to have the most impact on the sage-grouse, say FWS officials. BLM, Sharon Wilson, 202-452-5130.