Plans outlined to protect sage grouse | NevadaAppeal.com

Plans outlined to protect sage grouse

SANDRA CHEREB

RENO – Nevada has an abundance of sage grouse habitat and healthy populations, but a new state report says a broad spectrum of public-land use restrictions may be necessary in some areas to protect the bird from demise.

The report by Gov. Kenny Guinn’s sage grouse conservation team identifies statewide goals and recommendations from local planning groups around the state to address specific threats in specific areas.

The highest priority should be to protect population strongholds and large swaths of healthy sagebrush habitat critical to the bird’s survival, according to a copy of the report obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

“Habitat quality has been affected by various factors such as livestock grazing, wild horse utilization, the spread of invasive annual grasses and other exotics, and more recently, the lack of precipitation necessary to carry out good plant growth and provide water resources,” the report said.

In Nevada and eastern California, the report estimated the minimum population of sage grouse at between 68,000 and 88,000.

Additionally, it said the average number of males counted at traditional spring breeding grounds ranged from a low of 7.8 in 1976 to a high of 39.3 just four years later.

Last year, volunteers counted about 13 males per lek, as the breeding areas are called.

“We’ve found there are more birds and more leks and more habitat than we thought there was,” said Terry Crawforth, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife and a member of the team.

Ensuring healthy rangelands may require closer management of livestock grazing, wild horses and off-highway vehicle use, as well as closer attention to licensed hunting and rights-of-way for transmission lines, the report said.

“The bottom line is we need to identify good habitats and protect them,” Crawforth told the AP.

Guinn said he was encouraged by the findings as the state works to protect the bird and head off a possible federal listing as an endangered species.

Loss of habitat – from the power of nature to human encroachment – is identified as the biggest threat to the large game bird first observed by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805. Factors such as urban sprawl, highway traffic, communication towers, and oil and gas exploration all disrupt the bird’s breeding instincts or provide lookout perches for predators.

But locally, the threats vary from region to region, Crawforth said.

“You can’t say it’s grazing, or predators, or horses. In every unit, you’re going to have something different.”

The Nevada report echoes the findings of a West-wide sage grouse analysis published last month by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. That report said that sage grouse populations around the West have stabilized in recent years but still face serious threats.

Both reports come as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether sage grouse are in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could have sweeping ramifications for local planning decisions, federal public land management and national energy policies.

A decision from the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected by the end of the year. This week, the federal agency extended the public comment period on the proposed listing until July 30.