Efforts have been under way for years to conserve sage grouse, which number fewer than 1,000 here.
Washington ranchers and farmers already know their sage grouse so well, some tell the seasons by them. They are used to coexisting with the charismatic Western bird.
So it was no surprise or ruffle of feathers here when Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, announced Tuesday that listing of sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted.
Sage grouse call a vast swath of the West home, with habitat across 173 million acres in 11 states, including Washington, where their stronghold populations total fewer than 1,000 birds today in the sagelands of Douglas, Grant, Kittitas and Yakima counties with sporadic sightings elsewhere in Eastern Washington.
Sage grouse translocated from other states were recently reintroduced to Yakima County by the Yakama Nation and to Lincoln County by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
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Sage grouse, a native sagebrush denizen no bigger than a chicken with an elaborate mating display, have long been conserved in Washington, where many ranchers and farmers for at least a generation have lived and worked alongside the bird.
Part of the reason is as native as the bird itself: Washington’s landscape in Douglas County, where most of the state’s sage grouse live, is so rocky it can’t be farmed fence line to fence line. That means the ground that can’t be used by farmers has long been a refuge for sage grouse, living amid the rangelands and wheat fields.
About 70 percent of the sage grouse habitat in Washington is on private land in the Columbia Basin, and preservation of habitat here has been mostly under voluntary placement of land in conservation status under the federal Conservation Reserve Program and similar state programs.
“They have learned to live with us, and we have learned to live with them,” said rancher Allen Miller, who raises about 1,200 cattle on 25,000 acres in North Mansfield, Douglas County. He lives with the sage grouse so intimately he can tell when the winters will be cold by whether the birds leave his ranch or stay as winter approaches. He manages his cattle to avoid overgrazing, and leaves the sagebrush and other shrub steppe plants for the sage grouse to use.
Across the West, about half the 290 million acres of sagebrush steppe habitat used by sage grouse before European settlement has been lost to farming and other development. Yet sage grouse are hanging on, with some populations even rebounding. In Washington their numbers have stabilized after four straight years of losses, said Michael Schroeder, biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Hunting of sage grouse has been outlawed in Washington since 1987, and the bird, already a state threatened species, has been treated as if it were going to be federally listed for 14 years, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first announced the bird was a candidate for federal protection.
In Washington, “The reality is if they became listed nothing would really change, we would be doing the exact things we are doing,” Schroeder said. “We have had three decades of deliberate conservation of sage grouse management and recovery plans, so this is kind of a generational reality for us.”
Stepped-up conservation efforts at state levels across the West helped drive the decision Tuesday not to list, Jewell said at a Denver news conference.
The announcement not to list came as the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission last week approved the second phase of a multiyear plan to acquire the 20,571-acre Grand Coulee Ranch in Douglas County to protect shrub-steppe habitat for wildlife, including sage grouse, and public access for outdoor recreation.
Acquired with grants from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and excise taxes on fishing equipment, the conservation purchase is the sort of action that Jewell said marks new day for the West, relying on collaborative work to preserve species and cherished landscapes.
In that way, the decision not to list is “really the end of the beginning,” Jewell said. “We need to stay committed to what is right for sage grouse and its habitat.”
The decision not to list relies in part on implementation of federal land-use plans covering 67 million acres of the West, including the highest levels of protection for sage grouse on some 12 million acres with the best habitat. The goal of the plans is to minimize disturbance, combat invasive species, and manage fire.
Kim Thorburn of Spokane, a member of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission and past president of Spokane Audubon, said she is encouraged by the success of relocation and conservation efforts.
But the size of the sage grouse population is so small in Washington, she still fears for the bird’s future.
“The problem for the greater sage grouse is it’s the habitat they need and the habitat that has been destroyed. Can we really overcome the insults that have already been made to the landscape?”