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To list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species or not…that is the question.  And that question is what has brought hunters, wildlife professionals and sportsman’s organizations to the brink of civil war. On the opposite side fence sit the usual culprits, bureaucrats basically clueless of the issue at hand and self-serving politicians bent only how best to get re-elected.

Greater sage grouse are found in 11 Western states but have been in decline over much of its range for decades. But despite that tens of thousands remain in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho the bird has been a candidate for listing for over a decade. Previous reviews by USFWS have concluded sage grouse are “warranted but precluded” from listing due to other, more imperiled species.

In 2013 USFWS issued a mandate to the above 11 states to come up with comprehensive plans designed to “stop the bleeding, stabilize populations, protect and enhance core habitat so as to eventually turn around the decline, thus increasing numbers, maybe not to historical levels, but sufficiently to avoid ESA listing in the future. A ruling on whether or not to list is due out in September (2015).

As far as I know all 11 states have plans in place and all have passed preliminary review.  Early on, here in Montana, already there is strong evidence the plan, if given enough time, will turn the decline on its ear. In many areas this spring lek counts (grouse numbers on spring mating grounds many of which have been counted annually for decades) were up. And, based on my own considerable time spent hunting and photographing sage grouse, tramping sage grouse habitat in all seasons, looking for new leks and hunting spots our largest grouse are doing very well, thank you.

“What’s at stake is potentially the most far-reaching and impactful decision to ever come from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  If sage grouse are listed it will make the infamous spotted owl debate look feeble,” stated a Montana wildlife biologist who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

The shame is listing will have everything to do with politics and nothing whatsoever based on science and…And the wonderful work  folks on the ground are doing to prevent it by conserving and improving the sagebrush habitat, sage grouse depend. Simply stated without healthy, intact sagebrush, poof! Sage grouse are gone. State wildlife agencies have been doing this work for years, and private landowners who agree to certain conservation measures have been incentivized to keep grouse around through a program called the Sagebrush Initiative.

Add to all that good work the BLM’s announcement last month that the federal agency that controls the majority of sage grouse habitat is changing its management plans to ensure that sagebrush is protected and that critical grouse habitat is undisturbed by humans.

Then, just as it seems we are on the right track, along comes Colorado Senator Cory Gardner who tacks on a ridiculous amendment to a defense spending bill for crying out loud which would put a halt to USFWS listing sage grouse and, presumably every other critter in the country, for 10 years; and, oh yeah, here comes a similar House bill submitted by Representative Chris Stewart of Utah.  Sportsmen and organizations everywhere saw these bills for what they were, realized all the good work now in place would likely end as quickly as it began and come 10 years from now sage grouse would effectively be KAPUT!

Thanks to the huge outpouring of protests from sportsmen and women across the country, the lobbying of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation among others these senseless riders were quickly dumped in File 13 , where they belong.

Obviously I am out and out against listing. As a bird hunter, bird dog owner and conservationist who lives, works and plays in sage grouse country, I can tell you that listing is on everyone’s lips right now, hunters, public-land livestock grazers, energy co-ops, miners, developers, oil and gas drillers to mom n’ pop store, bar and café owners.  Everyone it seems skin in game or not, is talking about listing and what it might mean for them.

Will sage grouse be listed in September? Who the hell knows?  How in good conscience USFWS could simply can the wonderful work’s been done and plans for the future is, on the one hand, beyond my comprehension… But doubtless too, we are dealing here with a Washington bunch who, most, if not all, would not know a sage chicken from a farm chicken…

I rest my case…over and out…Chuck


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