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Conservation Objectives Team releases sage grouse report

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With the 2015 decision of whether or not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered creeping closer, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) selected a Conservation Objectives Team (COT) to provide recommendations as to the actions that should be taken to conserve the greater sage grouse.

The COT, which included policy makers, scientists and representatives from each affected state, released a final report in late March with recommendations as to the threats that need to be reduced or eliminated to relieve the sage grouse of its danger for extinction.

“The final, peer-review COT report delineates such objectives, based upon the best scientific and commercial data available at the time of its release,” says FWS Director Dan Ashe in a letter prefacing the report. “The report identifies conservation objectives and measures for each of the habitat threats assessed.”

The COT says, “The report will also serve as guidance to federal land management agencies, state sage grouse teams and others in focusing efforts to achieve effective conservation of this species.”

“I think this is helpful,” says Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resource Trust Executive Director Bob Budd. “It focuses everyone on the same set of circumstances and objectives.”

The 113-page report also clarifies that it serves as guidance only and does not create legal obligations. 

Summary of threats

As part of the report, the COT outlines a summary of threats to the sage grouse and provided in-depth recommendations for management.

“The loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitats is a primary cause of the decline of sage grouse populations,” reads the report. 

While the team attributes wildfire losses as a part of habitat disruption, they also note that human activity and encroachment by native conifers also presents a problem.

“Sage grouse populations can be significantly reduced, and in some cases locally extirpated, by non-renewable energy development activities,” adds the report, “even when mitigative measures are implemented.” 

A wide range of other causes also attribute to declining populations, including parasites, infectious disease, predation and weather events. 

“The lack of sufficient regulatory mechanisms to conserve sage grouse and their habitats was identified as a primary threat leading to our warranted but precluded finding in 2010,” continues the report. “While specific regulatory mechanisms are not addressed in this report, federal land management agencies and many state and local governments across the species’ range are working to develop adequate mechanisms to address this threat.”

In the report, the team specifically marked Wyoming’s action in our Governor’s Executive Orders and core area strategy as actions that “demonstrate the potential for successfully ameliorating the primary threats to sage grouse and their habitat through development and implementation of sufficient regulatory mechanisms.”

“It is essentially what we did in Wyoming, but is broader and doesn’t have any restrictions or regulatory framework,” says Budd. 

Conservation objectives

An additional section of the report identifies conservation objectives in general terms. 

The first objective – stop population declines and habitat loss – addresses the primary reason for development of the team and report.

“There are no populations within the range of sage grouse that are immune to the threat of habitat loss and fragmentation,” says the report.

Secondly, the team aims to implement targeted habitat management and restoration.

They also marked development and implementation of state and federal sage grouse conservation strategies to achieve their goals. The COT report specifically marked the development of incentive-based conservation actions and regulatory mechanisms as important.

Development and implementation of proactive and voluntary conservation actions was also important. 

Creation and use of monitoring plans to track the success of state and federal conservation strategies and voluntary conservation actions and prioritization, funding and implementation of research were also marked as important overarching goals for the project.

“We tried to leave our report fairly open ended and allow states to do what they need to do,” comments Budd. “It makes it very clear that the states have jurisdiction over the birds and states will determine what is going to ork for them – that is a very important point.”

Conservation success

“Conservation success will be achieved by removing or reducing threats to the species now, such that population trends will eventually be stable or increasing, even if numbers are not restored to historic levels,” comments Ashe. “The development of this report reflects a truly collaborative federal-state effort designed to provide a clearer picture of objectives that, if met, will ensure the long-term, robust persistence of this iconic western species.”

“Achieving these conservation objectives,” he continues, “will require our continuing collaboration.”

“This report takes what we have done and formalizes that process, recognizes it as an approach that is going to work and is important to all of us,” adds Budd.

Priority Areas of Conservation

As habitat loss was identified as a large contributor to declining sage grouse populations, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Conservation Objectives Team report identified Priority Areas of Conservation that aim to address the problem. 

“One key component of this report is the identification of Priority Areas of Conservation (PAC), which were described as key habitats that are essential for sage grouse conservation,” says FWS Director Dan Ashe.

After identifying the PACs utilizing the best science available, according to Ashe, the team notes that these areas should provide a primary focus for conservation efforts.

Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resource Trust Executive Director Bob Budd further explains that PACs are essentially like Wyoming’s core areas.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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