Greater Sage-grouse and Sagebrush Ecosystems
The greater sage-grouse, the signature species of the West’s sagebrush ecosystem, has declined as much as 93 percent from estimated historic levels and it has been extirpated from approximately 44 percent of its former range. Wyoming—which harbors the largest greater sage-grouse population in North America—has experienced less of the habitat loss and fragmentation than has occurred in other states. Nevertheless, sage-grouse in Wyoming declined over 5 percent per year between 1968 and 2003 and the average attendance of males at leks declined 49 percent (sage-grouse males gather on communal breeding grounds known as leks each spring, where they display to and breed with visiting females).
Much of the regional decline in sage-grouse populations predated intensive energy development. However, the increased scale and intensity of mineral extraction in Wyoming and other western states over the last decade, coupled with rangeland conversion to agriculture and subdivisions, long-term regional drought, prescribed and wild fires, invasion of rangelands by exotic species, livestock grazing practices, and the potentially devastating impact of West Nile virus have contributed to grouse population declines. These factors have rendered the species’ persistence questionable unless mitigation measures are undertaken to reduce these pressures. Many of the threats to sage-grouse also threaten a growing host of other sagebrush obligates, or species that depend on sagebrush ecosystems for all or parts of their life cycles. Such species include the Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, pronghorn, pygmy rabbit, sagebrush vole, and sagebrush lizard.
Because of escalating impacts on sagebrush ecosystems and concomitant declines in greater sage-grouse populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently is evaluating whether or not to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Scientific studies have shown that the stipulations (seasonal limitations on activities) that the Bureau of Land Management currently requires for oil and gas companies are inadequate to protect grouse. The Wyoming Outdoor Council believes that federal and state land managers must require more stringent protections for sage-grouse from development projects if this iconic species is to persist in Wyoming. The Council regularly submits public comments and offers public testimony regarding the need for federal oil and gas, wind energy, and transportation projects to provide adequate protections for sage-grouse and other sagebrush obligates.