Jane Yazzie: Sage grouse concerns
July 15, 2015
To the editor
Humans often gauge their efforts to thrive. They maneuver both nature and each other to maintain the effort. Nonhuman species thrive tentatively on a habitat's terms. That difference — between humans' agility in taking advantages from natural sources, moving across continents at will for more advantage, and, in contrast, natural species' reliance on the available natural conditions in their home ranges with limited mobility to seek more favorable spaces — is a difference that has always challenged the Bureau of Land Management's role to assign human land uses and sustain natural species.
In large segments of six western states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, Utah — lies a dry, mid-elevation, sagebrush-covered steppe (ecosystem) adaptive to sustaining continuing growth stages and coverage densities of sagebrush. This sagebrush prevents erosion, holds moisture, limits deep soil heat and encourages nutrients needed by grasses and low bushes.
The most sagebrush-dependent natural species in the multistate sagebrush habitat is the greater sage grouse land bird. Its species health is measured annually by a state's wildlife agency (in Colorado, Parks and Wildlife) doing counts of active male GRSG each March at traditional mating sites called leks and estimating surviving chicks in early summer. Those counts signal the habitat's readiness to sustain the species.
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service required GRSG's habitat states to submit plans to quantifiably measure, improve and sustain sagebrush habitat. As numerous GRSG populations have lost size or abandoned leks, remaining active populations are watched carefully.
Colorado BLM found only two of its seven GRSG populations are maintaining or improving their numbers, though both are challenged by their habitats' human usages. The North Park population N and W of Walden (3-year average active male count of 670) and the NW Colorado (Moffat County) population (average male count of 1575) are Colorado's heaviest contributions to a multistate GRSG survival.
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They signify this state's two-largest sets of relatively undisturbed habitat patches with healthy sagebrush linkages between patch sets over which GRSG can search for more supportive habitat as needed. However, when either Colorado population might try linkages to SW/Central Wyoming or NE Utah populations to regain survivability or genetic diversity, they would find both states' populations are stressed, by oil/gas industry.
A grouse hen even before spring mating will seek protein, calcium and phosphorus from earliest grasses and forbs, then lead her chicks to eat from growth and insects under sagebrush cover until July heat drives her search to succulents or wet-meadow plants. Until fall's frosts, she may find rain-fed grasses, using sagebrush taller than the grasses for protection, and in winter all will eat sagebrush only, which must be found at 10 to 14 inch heights above snow level.
These year-round GRSG needs have shown the BLM the three habitat indicators to measure, monitor and trend in conservation planning sufficient to protect the endangered species: first, percent sagebrush coverage at a site compared to what it could normally support; second, measurable habitat degeneration done by totaling acreage footprints from 18 federally listed habitat threats, six of which are roads, oil/gas sites, renewables sites, fire, grazing, or invasive weeds; third, density of energy/mining facilities. The combined data guide what BLM human usage limits and reclamations would be recommended to halt further habitat loss.
We can see what one small species' complex needs are and what human-caused habitat alterations can leave those needs unmet.