Search Penny Hill Press

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sage Grouse and the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

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, involving issues such as grazing, roads, fences, oil and gas development, urban expansion, spread of invasive species, water rights, timber harvest, and pollution. In many cases, the conflicts involve the protection of endangered and threatened species, often with one group 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.

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 energy 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 species of grouse there are and how they may be related. Currently, two closely related species are recognized by scientists: the Gunnison grouse (Centrocercus minimus) and the sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), sometimes referred to as the greater sage grouse. At one time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS or Service) also recognized two subspecies—the eastern sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianus) and the western sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus phaios)—but FWS reversed that position. In addition, FWS has designated distinct population segments (DPS) of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Parties have filed petitions seeking to protect these birds under the ESA by having them listed as threatened or endangered, but none are listed under the act. On January 11, 2013, however, FWS proposed listing the Gunnison grouse as endangered.

In July 2011, FWS reached a settlement in several lawsuits regarding delays in listing species, include the sage grouse. According to the settlement agreement, a proposed listing rule or a decision that listing is not warranted is due for the Mono Basin sage grouse DPS by the end of FY2013, and for the Columbia River Basin sage grouse DPS and the greater sage grouse by the end of FY2015. At present, those grouses’ protection under the ESA has been deemed warranted but precluded by higher protection priorities. Thus, the sage grouse is treated as a candidate species and does not have the protections that a listed species would have.

One factor in making a listing decision is whether other regulations are in place to provide adequate protection 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. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service have policies to protect the grouse on their lands, although courts have found those policies lacking. 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: April 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R40865
Price: $29.95

To Order:

R40865.pdf  to use the SECURE SHOPPING CART


Phone 301-253-0881

For email and phone orders, provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.