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Friday, October 29, 2010

Sage Grouse and the Endangered Species Act

Kristina Alexander
Legislative Attorney

M. Lynne Corn
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Western states have seen conflicts over natural resources for more than a century. These conflicts have involved issues such as grazing, roads, fences, oil and gas development, urban expansion, spread of invasive species, water rights, Native rights, timber harvest, and pollution. Recent additions to the list include development of alternative energy such as wind and solar power. In many cases, the more recent conflicts have involved the protection of endangered and threatened species, often with one group of advocates seeing listed species as an obstacle to their development goals or property rights, and another group advocating protection in line with their environmental, scientific, or economic goals. One such controversy is developing in 11 western states over sage grouse, whose numbers can be threatened by roads, fences, power lines, urban expansion, and energy development. This report describes the state of knowledge about these birds, history of efforts to protect them, and current controversies.

In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in response to petitions and lawsuits, issued a determination that listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was warranted but precluded by the need to list species with a more urgent need of protection. Thus, the sage grouse is treated as a candidate species and does not have the protections that a listed species would have.

The sage grouse, once abundant in western sagebrush habitat in 16 states, has dropped in numbers, and is now found in 11 states. Its decline can be attributed to several factors—increased use of sage grouse habitat by ranching and oil and gas development, decreased sagebrush due to noxious invasive species, and loss of habitat due to more frequent fires. However, the extent of the decline is not certain, and some dispute that the sage grouse is in peril. There is some discussion over how many different species of grouse there are and how they may be related. Currently, two species are recognized by scientists: the Gunnison grouse and the sage grouse. In addition, some experts divide the sage grouse into various distinct populations. FWS received several petitions to list these entities as endangered or threatened.

One factor in making a listing decision is whether other regulations are in place to provide adequate protections of a species so that federal listing is not necessary to prevent extinction. States in primary sage grouse habitat have taken action to forestall an endangered species listing, which some believe would inhibit energy development on vast amounts of public and private property. These issues are at the forefront as Congress considers increased energy development on federal lands, while balancing the mission of the ESA.

Date of Report: October 14, 2010
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: R40865
Price: $29.95

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