SOURCE: Audubon

DATE: September 5, 2019

SNIP: Across the West, Greater Sage-Grouse numbers are plummeting.

So says an August 19 court filing that describes three consecutive years of sharp declines in five states that hold more than 80 percent of the population. Sage-grouse numbers are known to swing widely, but the losses are too big to be explained by those roughly decade-long boom-and-bust cycles, according to the sworn statement by Clait Braun, a retired biologist who studied the birds for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Braun’s testimony is part of an ongoing lawsuit by four conservation groups that aims to block sweeping changes announced earlier this year to sage-grouse conservation plans on millions of acres overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The population figures arrived on the heels of a U.S. Forest Service overhaul of its own sage-grouse plans that conservation groups see as similarly worrisome, and just days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced rule changes that could make it harder to protect the imperiled birds under the Endangered Species Act.

Combined with new data showing that the Trump administration is ramping up oil and gas leasing in core sage-grouse habitat, the population loss and recent policy changes deepen worries over the future of the bird and the 350 other plant and animal species that share its sagebrush-steppe habitat.

The new figures, based on spring counts at the Greater Sage-Grouse mating areas known as leks, are “very worrisome,” Braun tells Audubon magazine. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it.” The Idaho population, for example, has plunged by 52 percent since 2016, with a 25 percent loss this year alone. Oregon likewise lost a quarter of its sage-grouse in the past year, following two years of more modest declines. In Nevada, the population has shrunk by one-third over the past three years, while Wyoming—which has more of the birds than any other state—lost 28 percent of them since last year.