- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2014

DENVER — The Greater sage-grouse and Westerners may be able to coexist, but it’s going to be an increasingly tight squeeze.

A review issued by the U.S. Geological Survey found that the Greater sage-grouse ideally needs a 3- to 5-mile buffer zone between its breeding area and human development, which could mean anything from a hydraulic fracturing tower to a 4-foot fence.

At a time when Western economic interests have clashed repeatedly with the Obama administration’s land-use decisions, the big buffer for the ground-dwelling, chicken-size bird has the potential to ruffle more than a few human feathers.

At the same time, the report said that land managers should have discretion to determine how large the buffer should be, depending on factors ranging from the availability of sagebrush, the effectiveness of local conservation efforts and other factors.

“This is a bird that requires a large, unfragmented landscape, and one of the great things about the West is that we still have a lot of that,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Theo Stein. “But we don’t have as much as we used to, and population numbers for the sage grouse have been declining for decades.”

The Greater sage-grouse, the dancing game bird at the center of a pitched debate over endangered species, makes its home across a vast and sparsely populated 11-state territory stretching from California to Wyoming. Even so, carving out a 3-mile radius around the species’ breeding grounds, or “leks,” could prove tricky.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 200,000 to 500,000 Greater sage-grouse. Using the lowest estimate, that represents 100,000 breeding pairs. If each pair needs a 3-mile buffer to breed, equivalent to roughly 18,000 acres, that amounts to 1.8 billion acres — or almost as much land as the 1.99 billion acres of land within the continental United States.

Fortunately, not every breeding pair needs its own lek. Carol Schuler, USGS senior science adviser, said 15 to 20 breeding pairs typically share the same lek. Even so, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for telephone poles or windmills considering the bird’s habitat is estimated at 165 million acres.

Denver attorney Kent Holsinger, who specializes in land-use and species issues, said it was “somewhat encouraging that more and more researchers recognize a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work for such a wide-ranging species as sage-grouse.”

But he took issue with the report’s reliance on data indicating that roads, fences, telephone poles and drilling located miles away can interfere with the grouse’s ability to mate.

“[T]he continued assumption that human activity directly causes population declines is seriously misplaced,” Mr. Holsinger said. “Moreover, the notion that such huge buffers are required is based upon outdated information. For example, the impacts of oil and gas development today (due to horizontal drilling, pipelines and new technology) are much smaller than the kind of intensive development of yesteryear that much of these studies are based upon.”

Heading off a listing

The USGS study, which compiles summaries of previous research on sage-grouse breeding and development, comes with Western states heavily engaged in habitat restoration efforts in order to stave off a potentially damaging federal endangered species listing, a listing that could have a far more dramatic impact on economic development.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is required to decide whether to list the Greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered by September 2015. Lawmakers fear a listing would hobble economic activity by chilling oil and gas drilling, along with wind and solar development.

Two weeks ago, the agency listed as “threatened” the Gunnison sage-grouse of Colorado and Utah, prompting Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to say he would challenge the decision in court. Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity has sued to raise the listing to “endangered,” arguing that the lower category fails to protect the species adequately.

Despite the uproar over the Gunnison sage-grouse, a Greater sage-grouse listing would have a far greater impact. The Gunnison sage-grouse has an estimated 5,000 birds in two states, while the Greater sage-grouse would affect communities throughout the rural West.

The push for greater protections could upset ranchers and farmers in the region, who have already embarked on voluntary conservation efforts in a bid to head off more onerous regulations.

Many landowners have signed agreements to mark fences, restrict livestock from grouse breeding areas and even prune western juniper trees that provide a convenient perch for grouse predators, according to the CapitalPress.com, a weekly news site devoted to regional agricultural issues.

In addition to conservation efforts, several states have cut back on their hunting seasons for the Greater sage-grouse. While the bird may be on the brink of an endangered listing, Mr. Stein said hunting and species protection aren’t mutually exclusive.

“What we have determined is that the prime threat to the sage-grouse is loss of habitat, not loss of birds,” he said.

It may be close, but Mr. Stein stressed that the West is big enough to accommodate both human activity and the Greater sage-grouse, the largest grouse species in North America.

“Is there enough land to conserve this bird? The answer to that is yes,” Mr. Stein said. “Remember, these are recommendations for the land-use agency to use in developing their own strategies. These are not requirements. In the end, we are going to have [to] look across the range, across the 11 states, and examine how the management strategies work together.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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