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Debate Over Protecting Sage-Grouse Re-Ignited with New Federal Bill

Dec 23, 2014 12:10 PM EST
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The long-standing debate over protecting the sage-grouse, a rare bird species in Colorado and the West, has been re-ignited with a new federal bill passed by Congress last week.

According to The Associated Press (AP), certain provisions or "riders" in the 1,603-page spending bill has barred the federal government from splurging on rules to protect the bird. Meanwhile, wildlife managers with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) say that the sage-grouse is heading towards extinction, and this bill would prevent them from intervening on behalf of the species' survival.

"Rather than helping the communities they profess to benefit, these members (of Congress) will only create uncertainty, encourage conflict and undermine the unprecedented progress that is happening throughout the West," Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior, said in a statement last week.

Story of an Underdog

There are two species of sage-grouse involved in this controversy - the Gunnison sage-grouse and the greater sage-grouse. Both birds- known for their elaborate mating rituals - are rare, The Denver Post reports. Larger in size than the Gunnison, the greater sage-grouse also has a bigger population, estimating at 200,000 to 500,000 in 11 Western states.

But the Gunnison sage-grouse is the real underdog in this fight, with just 5,000 of these guys left in the wild. The FWS listed it as a threatened species in November - a decision that was highly criticized by political leaders - and should they want to upgrade this status to "endangered" in the near future, they would be unable to do so, according to the new bill.

So why is Congress so opposed to protecting this rare bird species? When it comes to protecting the sage-grouse, its endangered status comes with numerous restrictions that would impact homebuilders and energy companies, including drilling and fracking operations, for example. The greater sage-grouse's expansive habitat is of particular concern to lawmakers and businessmen, which could affect as many as 31,000 jobs and $5.6 billion in economic activity.

This isn't to say that Congress is not empathetic to the bird's situation. Local and state officials have been somewhat successful in protecting the Gunnison sage-grouse, even without the official endangered listing. And they believe that this new legislation, in time, wouldn't impede future efforts.

"If the rider achieves what it's intended to achieve, it will give more time for state and local efforts to show their effectiveness," Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance vice president of government and public affairs, told The Post.

Gunnison sage-grouse populations in the Gunnison County area are stable, but the rest that live in fringe colonies in eastern Utah and western Colorado will die off within the next 60 years, according to the FWS.

The agency plans to continue gathering data, with help from Indian tribes, government agencies and others, on sage-grouse numbers to better determine whether the bird warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, the AP reports. This is despite the fact that the FWS is prohibited from making that final step from "threatened" to "endangered."

While conservationists are sticking to their guns, the fate of the dwindling sage-grouse remains uncertain. The bird's future listing could depend on whether Congress votes next year to keep the bill's new restrictions going.

A Mating Ritual

Sage-grouse are known for being a highly charismatic bird, whose mating ritual is described as one of the most fascinating and colorful natural history pageants in the West, according to Defenders of Wildlife. In early spring, swarms of males come out at dawn and dusk in "leks" - ancestral strutting grounds that are up to 40 acres in size and some 50 miles from the birds' wintering habitat. The cocks parade around, showing off their long, white-tipped black feathers and swelling their breasts to reveal bright yellow air sacs, in order to entice nearby hens.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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