Greater Sage Grouse Won’t Get Protected – But Devil is in the Details

Here is a nice roundup of the articles covering the decision Friday, March 5, 2010 NOT to protect the Greater Sage Grouse vis-á-vis the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  This grouse species, along with most of the closely related wild fowl complex of about 6 species that inhabit the west, are in a nearly 100 year decline.  The declines are due to a long history of habitat changes beginning with conversation of land to agriculture and cattle range and to oil and gas development.  The latest land use concern is from wind power though much of the wind power is being installed in lands already degraded by previous land conversion.  How does wind power impact grouse?  The concern is that grouse habitat would be fragmented and disturbed by construction of wind projects and that the tall towers would be perceived as perches for  birds of prey which are a major predator of grouse.

Listing of this species under the ESA could impose major delays or cancellation of wind projects proposed in grouse habitat.  As it currently stands, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are requesting that wind developers provide up to a five mile buffer around each breeding unit of grouse called a lek.  Listing under the ESA would mean that this and other requests would become requirements.  So, with the March 5 decision comes as a bit of a reprieve in that ESA status was not conferred, not yet anyway.  But here is the devil in the details – the FWS will be reevaluating whether to list the Greater Sage Grouse on a yearly basis. So, additional protections for this species could come at any time.

The best course of action for wind developers is to have a qualified team of field ornithologists conduct “lek counts” in the early spring on all their project lands.  Better to know sooner than later if your project hosts any grouse species.  The window for such surveys is mid March through the end of April.  This is when grouse and prairie chickens form their leks and conduct the group courtship rituals that includes dancing and calling males watched and evaluated by surrounding females.  The leks are most active in the hour before dawn up to about 2 hours post-sunrise.  In the end, the best dancers and singers will be the favored males that will get to mate with the most females.