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New report finds significant decline in Great Basin sage-grouse population, offers framework to focus recovery efforts

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

Programming note: I’m taking some time off next week, so the Indy Environment newsletter is going to take a short one-week break. I’ll be back in May with lots of news to cover. 

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For decades, wildlife biologists have documented population declines in Greater sage-grouse, one of the West’s most iconic species. Across its range, lingering drought, industrial development, large-scale wildfires and the rapid proliferation of invasive species have fragmented or damaged its habitat.

Now, a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) highlights how significant those declines have been. According to the report, sage-grouse, which rely on habitat in 11 Western states, have experienced a rangewide population decline of about 80 percent since 1965 and an even greater decline in the Great Basin, especially in the last few decades.

Sage-grouse are known for a unique mating ritual in which male birds strut around areas known as “leks,” making a popping sound with two yellow inflatable air-sacs in their chests — all in the early morning hours of the day. For biologists, sage-grouse often serve as an indicator species for the general health of the sagebrush ecosystem, a predominant landscape in Nevada.

“The Great Basin faces multiple threats, and some that are much different than the rest of the range,” said Peter Coates, a USGS researcher and a lead author on the report.

Over the past few decades, annual grasses have taken root in many areas where sagebrush once was. That includes cheatgrass, an invasive species that contributes to a vicious cycle of extreme wildfire, which poses a direct threat to sage-grouse and restoring its natural habitat. 

The Great Basin already sits on the southern, more arid periphery of the sage-grouse’s range, Coates said. That means extended drought can have especially extreme effects on populations. When precipitation does return, it's difficult for birds to recover where its habitat has been lost.

“When there is pressure such as drought exerted on these populations, this is largely going to cause these populations to decline,” Coates noted. “But if that drought is prolonged, it appears that we can have a lot of these peripheral populations reach ‘points of no return.’”

At the same time, sage-grouse face other stressors. Shawn Espinosa, an upland game staff specialist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) who works on recovery efforts, said the species can face additional pressures brought on by mining activity, inappropriate livestock grazing, the ecological footprint from horses, energy development and transmission lines. 

“When you get to the Great Basin, because of climate change and all of the other stressors that we’re placing on this landscape, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why sage grouse populations are doing as poorly as they are,” Espinosa said in an interview last week.

In the past, conservation groups have sought to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act. But in 2015, the Obama administration dropped a finding that the species should be listed and instead directed states and federal land managers to implement extensive conservation plans. 

The population declines in the report caught the major headlines. But the report is also important for land managers because it provides a framework for potential ways to move forward. The report helps standardize sage-grouse data to determine population trends, define population boundaries within the species’ range and a “Targeted Annual Warning System” that aims to help biologists pinpoint local areas of concern and better tailor their conservation efforts. 

Right now, Coates said biologists don’t always know “which actions are the best, which are always the most effective. And we’re not always going to the right place at the right time. The Targeted Annual Warning System gives us a tool to go to the right place at the right time.”

Many threats to sage-grouse, including fire and climate, are difficult to directly control, Espinosa said, and it’s all the more reason to better manage the things we can control.

“We can do a better job of managing mining,” he said. “We can do a better job of managing wild horses. We can do a better job of managing livestock on the landscape. And we can do a better job of restoration. We can probably do a better job with invasive species as well.”

“And in some respects, we are getting there,” Espinosa added. “But not fast enough.”

A lot of that depends on whether land managers, who permit development projects on public land, prioritize the protection of sage-grouse. Espinosa said that, especially over the last four to five years, “there’s been some dereliction of duty out there regarding land use management.”

Researchers plan to further study the effectiveness of conservation efforts. But Coates said, so far, results suggest that certain conservation actions can help to mitigate some disturbances.

“I would argue that we don't know what the trends would be like without the conservation actions, but they would likely be a lot worse than what we’re seeing with what we have now, considering the amount of loss of habitat we’ve experienced in the last two decades,” he said. 

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


Federal officials project Colorado River shortage: “The man-made lakes that store water supplying millions of people in the U.S. West and Mexico are projected to shrink to historic lows in the coming months, dropping to levels that could trigger the federal government's first-ever official shortage declaration and prompt cuts in Arizona and Nevada,” The Associated Press’ Sam Metz reports from Carson City. 

Things could get worse for Lake Mead: John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program, looks at what’s “likely” for Lake Mead through 2023.

The Supreme Court’s commission to study water adjudication held its first meeting last week (here’s a link to the recording). Jeniffer Solis with the Nevada Current breaks down how the meeting went: “Water law adjudication, already a complicated field, will only become more so because of the climate crisis, extended droughts, and increasing demand for groundwater in Nevada, the Supreme Court was told last week.”

Montana conservationist picked to lead the BLM: The Biden administration plans to nominate Tracy Stone-Manning, an associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency that manages more than 65 percent of the land in Nevada. More from the Missoula Current.

Clark County unanimously passes resolution to protect 30 percent of Nevada’s land and water by 2030.


What happened to natural gas legislation? Over the weekend, my colleague Riley Snyder and I wrote about the politics and utility lobbying that went into defeating proposed legislation, outlined in the state’s climate strategy, that would have started the state’s transition away from natural gas and toward electrification. 

Energy $$$ in the Legislature: My colleague Jacob Solis tracks campaign contributions from the energy industry in his weekly “Follow the Money” feature.  

The opportunities and limits of green hydrogen: Excellent story by The Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton and InsideClimateNews James Bruggers on the potential for green hydrogen as an alternative fuel source. The story also gives a good overview of how hydrogen is currently used and its carbon footprint. 


A demand for more lithium: “The supply of electric vehicle batteries worldwide is not on track to meet rising demand for electric cars, trucks and buses, a trend that could cause EV production delays in the next six or seven years, according to a new report,” E&E News’ Miranda Wilson writes.

A proposal to reopen a giant California gold mine: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Kurtis Alexander writes about a proposal to reopen a giant gold mine in Grass Valley. “Mining may have given rise to this community, and more notably, lifted the entire state from frontier to financial powerhouse, but the scars it left on the landscape remain visible, and unwanted.”

Investors pushing gold mines to improve climate goals: “Canadian miner Barrick Gold Corp [earlier this month] raised its greenhouse gas emissions target to 30% from 10% and pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, amid an investor-driven push for climate change initiatives,” Reuters reported earlier this month.


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