Prior to the 2020 fires, sage grouse in Washington state were already in a precarious situation. The statewide population was estimated at 770 birds, living in only 8% of their historic range.

Eric Tegethoff

Washington News Service

SEATTLE?? The Interior Department is expected to announce its decision soon on the fate of the sage grouse conservation plan, which spans Washington and 10 other western states.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says his agency is re-examining the plan to see if it hinders energy development, meaning sage grouse habitat could be opened up to more drilling and mining.

Jack Connelly is a former wildlife biologist who worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for nearly three decades. He and 16 other scientists sent a letter to Zinke in October expressing concern that the voices of scientists and wildlife managers weren’t being heard on this decision.

“If policymakers and agency leadership want to seriously address sage grouse conservation, they have got to embrace the science, and the scientists and the habitat managers and so forth, and bring them in and listen to their advice,” he stresses. “And that’s simply not being done.”

Connelly says researchers know more about sage grouse than almost any other species in the West. He says the birds need large areas to thrive, and breaking up the land for development threatens their ability to survive.

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington have been critical of the proposed changes and say the original plan is the result of negotiations among ranchers, sportsmen, conservationists and states.

The plan was finalized in 2015 under the Obama administration.

As an indicator species, sage grouse conservation also helps protect more than 350 other species.

Matt Holloran is a leading sage grouse researcher who headed the group of scientists that sent the letter to Zinke. He says science supports the current approach to management and conservation.

“We actually have information to say, ‘Okay, that is a good idea,’ or, ‘That is not such a good idea,’ with sage grouse in particular?? a ton of research on that species,” he points out. “The management decisions that were forwarded in those plans are based on the information that we have and therefore, have a pretty high likelihood of succeeding.”

Holloran adds the sage grouse already has lost half its habitat and 95 percent of its historic population.

Its range is part of an iconic landscape that stretches across 50 million acres in 11 Western states.


Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Washington News Service is a part of the Public News Service, an independent member-supported national news service based in Boulder, Colo., that distributes public interest news and information. Support comes from grants, gifts and memberships from individuals, foundations, nonprofit organizations and businesses for social responsibility.

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