Friday, August 1, 2014

Facts, Not Opinion Should Drive Sage Grouse Conservation

By Nick Gevock

Every Montanan has a stake in what happens with Sage Grouse. From ranchers & farmers to oil, gas and coal industry members to hunters and anyone who loves wildlife. Everyone has a stake in ensuring that we don’t lose an iconic species of western wildlife. That’s why a recent editorial in the Great Falls Tribune caught my eye.

The issue, of course, is how best to work to conserve sage grouse. The iconic species of the sagebrush prairies has been in decline, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to put it on the federal Endangered Species List. That’s something none of us – conservationists, ranchers, hunters, wildlife watchers and natural resource developers – want to see because it means we've failed to do the job at hand: ensure a future for Sage Grouse without the heavy hand of the Federal Government.

As it always is with wildlife, the number one factor that will help with that is conserving key habitat that the birds depend on. That was one of the main recommendations of the Sage Grouse Advisory Council, which met often over eight months to craft a plan.

Apparently though, that’s not how some read the report. For some, the key to conserving sage grouse is “predator control,” including shooting coyotes, foxes, skunks, ravens and raccoons. And then there’s that other predator – humans. There certainly are some people who would rather try to lay the bird’s woes on hunting as well, and they pushed for reducing or eliminating it. Luckily, Hunters in Montana are organized and energized and fought the blanket closure effectively, forcing FWP to adopt a hunting season that closes hunting opportunity where the bird is truly struggling, yet allowing some opportunity for those of us who love chasing the big bird.

You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

In Wyoming, sound studies found that that just protecting the core areas wasn’t enough. Along with all the oil and gas development, there was a decline in sage grouse. But larger scale conservation to add in nesting areas was shown to be more promising.

That’s why Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead proposed a $10 million conservation easement program to help protect 100,000 acres of nesting habitat that will work hand-in-hand with federal Natural Resources Conservation Service efforts. That’s the template that the council used in crafting a plan for a similar sage grouse stewardship program.

Imagine that – habitat makes a difference with wildlife conservation. It’s not complicated, and it’s certainly not something new.

The science has always been clear – regulated hunting is a non-issue when it comes to upland bird populations. Yes, their numbers will fluctuate, but with a good spring hatch upland game bird species can go from scarcity to abundance in one year. Sage grouse aren't as fecund as some upland species, but give them habitat and they’ll do fine.

We absolutely agree that we should focus on the actual, peer reviewed science related to sage grouse. To date, none of that science shows increased lethal control of any predator has long term effects on the species. Likewise, hunting mortality is not a determining factor in sage grouse conservation, and in fact, without hunting a significant source of funding simply disappears, making listing even more likely. 

Furthermore, putting the blame on predators and hunters takes attention away from the real issue – habitat.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho recently received a national Teaming with Wildlife award. In accepting the award, Risch talked about what a great bird the sage grouse is and how it needs protection. On a personal note, I’ve met ranchers from eastern Montana who share that view and relish seeing these majestic native birds out on the prairie.

We’re all in this together when it comes to conservation for wildlife. We have to use the best science available, even if it challenges our own pre-conceived notions of what is or isn’t harming sage grouse. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has said that hunting and predation are not limiting factors, so let’s stop demonizing people and get back to work helping this iconic bird.

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