Can Protecting Core Areas Help Imperiled Sage Grouse Populations?

Sage grouse populations are in decline across their range. Can protecting core areas while directing energy development in less-sensitive areas help?  Photo: Bob Griffith

Sage grouse populations are in decline across their range. Can protecting core areas while directing energy development in less-sensitive areas help? Photo: Bob Griffith

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Can protecting core sage grouse habitat while allowing energy and housing development in less-sensitive areas help conserve this declining bird?

That’s the focus of a recent paper in PLoS One journal that measures the effectiveness of sage grouse conservation actions in Wyoming, the state with the largest population of these birds.

Greater Sage Grouse populations have been in decline throughout their eleven-state range, spurring numerous conservation efforts to reverse this long-term trend. States have undertaken significant conservation actions aimed at keeping the grouse off the Endangered Species list. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also launched its collaborative Sage Grouse Initiative with similar goals.

The paper’s authors call this “one of the largest conservation experiments ever undertaken in North America with an unprecedented number of state governments, federal agencies, industry partners and conservation organizations mobilizing to develop successful conservation strategies to proactively reduce the need to list this candidate species under the US Endangered Species Act.”

But are the conservation actions working?

“How much habitat is enough?” asks Holly Copeland, a Conservancy conservation scientist in Wyoming and the paper’s lead author. “What is the return on investment on conservation actions? That’s what we were investigating?”

Wyoming has 38 percent of the remaining sage grouse population.  It also has rapidly expanding oil and gas, wind and residential development. To address this, Wyoming has a core area policy that protects key grouse habitat, capping allowable disturbance at 5 percent and limiting the number of oil and gas wells within core areas.

The paper’s authors built new predictive development models to predict future impacts to sage grouse and to measure the effectiveness of conservation actions for maintaining sage grouse populations.

They found that without conservation action, Wyoming sage grouse populations will suffer a long-term decrease of 14 to 29 percent. The core area strategy and easements could reduce these losses to 9 to 15 percent, “cutting anticipated losses by roughly half statewide  and nearly two-thirds within sage grouse core breeding areas.”

“Our study is on the conservative side and strengthens the argument for protecting core areas for sage grouse,” says Copeland.

In the models, core areas proved vital for sage grouse conservation. Targeted conservation easements are also important in protecting habitat on private lands, which are not influenced by the core area strategy.

“This study emphasize that the most important thing we can do for sage grouse is keep intact sage grouse habitat intact,” says Copeland. “It also can help inform our policy. Sage grouse conservation has been a hot policy topic for wildlife conservationists. This report can make sure policy experts are directing their efforts at policies that most help sage grouse.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.

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