Grouse chick. Photo: USFWS.
No sage-grouse hunting season in the Grizzly State in 2017. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced “surveys showed significantly fewer sage-grouse in all four hunting zones … sage-grouse population counts have decreased between 47 percent and 62 percent in the four hunt zones over the last five years”. Culprits identified were drought, fire, and a hard winter. Numbers had long been so low that only the Bodie area had been open to the killing of 30 birds in recent years. Now, “their numbers have fallen by half in California over the last five years, with 1,300 to 2,100 sage grouse believed to survive in the state”.
The dwindling greater sage-grouse populations in northeastern California include Clear Lake, scattered pockets near Alturas, the Buffalo-Skedaddle population, and the western edges of the Pah Rah-Virginia and Massacre populations. To the south, a geographically separate and genetically distinct population (the Bi-state Distinct Population Segment) inhabits the mountains around the Mono Basin, spanning the California-Nevada border. The largest block of occupied habitat is the Bodie Hills. There are several subpopulations. Some, like the Pine Nut birds, are nearly gone.
Yet just two years ago Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was crowing over a booming conservation success, her findings that none of the birds deserved listing under the Endangered Species Act. The separate “Not Warranted” findings for both groups of grouse were heralded as the fruit of “epic collaboration”. Interior even produced a Happy Dance video celebrating this feat. The findings were the culmination of a prolonged barrage of agency, energy and cattlemen media releases and news articles plastered across the West touting the great things being done to save the “chicken-sized bird”. Politicians disgorged hundreds of millions of dollars from federal coffers for projects. State Game agencies proclaimed stable or upward population trends. With all the non-stop good news, certainly anyone could see there was no need for the birds to be listed.
Lead Up to Jewell’s Not Warranted Findings
Interior intended to fix its vulnerability to environmental lawsuits. It embarked on a process to amend BLM and Forest Service Land Use Plans, which often lacked grouse-specific management guidance. Plan regulatory weaknesses had been identified in a 2010 Warranted but Precluded finding by Ken Salazar, Jewell’s predecessor. Back then Interior said: Yes, the birds qualify for listing as a Threatened species. But alas, we have a long list of other species in more trouble that need to be dealt with first, and no funding to work on a listing. Looming over this was a settlement agreement deadline from environmental litigation that required a decision on ESA listing by 2015.
At the same time the Plan amendment process was playing out, frenzied activity was taking place in the hinterlands. Legions of land-grant school grad students and technicians radio-transmittered grouse, followed them around, and religiously avoided documenting grazing damage to the land. Wildlife Services snuffed out predators and poisoned ravens in the area of several studies. Birds were “translocated” typically from ungrazed Hart or Sheldon Refuges or thereabouts, to central Washington, Clear Lake, and other areas to keep populations on life support, and stave off range contraction. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service concocted vegetation models to justify massive deforestation of pinyon-juniper, sage thinning, and more seedings of sagebrush habitat with exotic wheatgrasses. Funds were shoveled to welfare ranchers for innumerable projects on private lands. Details were shielded from public disclosure by a secrecy provision in the Farm Bill. I asked an Idaho NRCS head whether the agency had funded a horribly located new fence (grouse fly in dim light, collide with fences, and die). The reply was “I can only tell you if we have not funded it”. New fences were justified by claims of better grazing.
USGS and others pumped out papers using elaborate statistical models of populations and habitat minutia. Papers urging purging trees, sagebrush thinning and fuelbreaks to make the land “more resilient” were especially prized. Funding followed politically correct findings. Making trees (and predators) the enemy conveniently distracted from scrutiny of the unraveling sagebrush ecosystem.
States put intensive effort into maximizing high counts on leks, and scouring the land for leks. Often, they tweaked how they counted birds – using the highest count after many visits, or changed how the activity status of leks was defined (whether birds were still using the site).
Most ominously, habitat importance/value categories were re-defined, and sliced and diced in ever-changing ways. As habitat continued to fall to weeds, fire, drill rigs or mine pits and local sage-grouse numbers tanked, and politicians doing the bidding of industry whined, protection shrank. So much for all the flowery promises of “restoration” following wildfires made in preceding decades – as burned habitats became low priority sacrifice zones. The end game was to come up with the minimum acreage in essential habitat categories – placating the multiple abusers (public lands ranchers, energy developers and miners). Their activities could then continue apace in the ever-expanding sacrifice category habitats.
Jewell parachuted in a three person Dream Team to help make concessions to states and industry, and sell this triage scheme for sage-grouse. Though none dared call it that. Two of the Dreamers had never seen a grouse. A new “Focal Habitat” category, a mere 10 million acres of the over 150 million acre former range, appeared out of the blue late in the Plan amendment process. This came back to bite the Feds with Judge Du’s ruling that they “did not allow for intelligent public participation” during the planning process giving industry a partial win in an early legal challenge to the Plan amendments.
Landscape Birds and Triage Zoos
Sage-grouse require relative solitude. They may move over vast areas of the landscape over the course of a year to fulfill seasonal needs. Hard winters drive them into areas seldom used. Large fires can sear holes in what remains of a tattered landscape in a single summer. Not considering all occupied habitat as vital has been a doomed path from the start. The groundwork for triage as an operative rule in grouse conservation had been laid years ago, and elevated by Salazar. He embraced what was called the Core habitat model that oozed out of the Wyoming oil fields as the sage was being torn apart by energy development. It was evangelized across the West by Bob Budd and then-Governor Freudenthal, and promoted by the Audubon Society and others. Supporting research papers were dutifully produced, with circles drawn around leks and lek clusters, and calculations made. Birds lucky enough to live where there was a higher percentage of the population were proclaimed worthy of more protection. Elements of the Core model pervade many state plans and Plan amendment habitat categories. Habitats where grouse were in the most trouble, or their numbers naturally lower due to Basin and Range terrain, were lower priority. WAFWA (Western Game agencies group) lumped large and small populations together in “Zones”, masking populations about to blink out.
Many states set up stakeholder groups dominated by hand-picked ranchers, industry representatives, and politicians. They were spoon fed elements of new state level plans that were used to exert pressure to bend and weaken the federal Plan amendment process. These state plans were, and are, used to elevate devolution. States can manage the birds (and public land) just fine. The Feds should butt out, but keep funds flowing – more tree and sage killing, more cow projects to keep ranchers happy, and more conservation easements allowing continued land degradation so long as no condo is built on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Complex cockamamie mitigation schemes legitimized new energy or mine development eating up even the most vital habitat.
A research paper that didn’t really say that grouse could tolerate 3% disturbance in every section of land was used to allow 3% (or 5% if you happened to be in Wyoming) disturbance in primo habitats. “Disturbance” was defined as pretty much bulldozing the land to bare dirt and putting oil wells or windmills on it, counting only the exact acres obliterated as disturbance. Cow or sheep herds run on top of nesting birds, lethal fences or the dust bowls surrounding West Nile mosquito harboring livestock water developments were not considered disturbance. Nor were fires.
The media ate up the grouse show. Sally Jewell praised public land ranchers non-stop, spouting “what’s good for the herd is good for the bird”. In the thousands of articles produced, media never questioned what was taking place – beyond inclusion of occasional worried quotes from token enviros. Emerson Urry at Environews assembled the best, and indeed the only documentation and critical look at what went down with the 2015 Not Warranted Findings. Urry obtained footage of an atypically animated Jewell in Nevada on Earth Day 2015, when she jubilantly proclaimed there was no need to list the Bi-state DPS, and then her repeat performance at the Rocky Mountain nuke arsenal Refuge in September. See Environews video at 8 to 15 minutes. “On and on the Secretary rolled giving shout outs …”. It was the politicians and the cowboy hats that mattered, not the birds.
On the Ground in Northeast California
A road trip through what’s left of the sagebrush country in northeast California would set off alarm bells in any person who cared to look. The handwriting has long been on the wall. In a visit to Clear Lake country nearly a decade ago, three of us combed the ground, looking for Cheeto-like grouse scat. We found only a couple of scats on the best Modoc Forest habitat, but lots of expanding weeds and crested wheatgrass seeded for cow food. Since then, more cow projects have been built and countless junipers destroyed, creating hotter, drier, weedier sites.
In 2017, California asked Nevada for 20 wild-trapped grouse for three years for translocation, as Clear Lake’s “population growth” had stopped. The growth was the result of many past bird releases between 2005 and 2014, when numbers on the only extant lek increased from 5 strutting males to 30, then remained “stable” when the infusions of birds stopped. There used to be 45 leks around Clear Lake and Devil’s Garden, and now there’s only one.
Near Alturas, medusahead and weeds rule – choking sage understories, and thriving in the livestock trampled soils beneath western junipers. No matter how many trees agencies kill, or how much largesse gets handed to ranchers, all is lost. In Likely Tablelands and Big Valley, the birds are down to zero. The Buffalo-Skedaddle country to the south comprises the largest block of habitat. The 2012 Rush fire burned 313,000 acres in California. After the fire, persistent cow trespass on closed areas was documented by wild horse advocates. Soon, livestock were officially turned out again to eat up the expensive rehab. The Pah Rah-Virginia population (nearly all in Nevada) has long been declining from fire, weeds, and housing sprawl. Chronic grazing disturbance insures the weeds choke more habitat, move into higher elevations, and rehabs fail. BLM’s response has been to kill more junipers, though fires have already taken out many of the trees and at least one new fire burned 10,570 acres of sage-grouse habitat started by sparks from contractors doing juniper removal. Despite the dire straits the northeastern California birds were obviously already in, not a single acre made the cut to be considered Focal Habitat in Jewell’s Plan amendments.
Bi-state DPS Nosedives
The Bi-state sage-grouse habitats in the Mono area managed by the BLM in California weren’t included in the 2015 Plan amendments. The USFWS Manager at the time justified being politically hamstrung by claiming that things were going fine. Bishop BLM had a good guy watching over the grouse – so no need to worry or amend Plans. Besides there already was a great Plan. In 2012, RCI consultants (long saddled up with stockmen) shepherded agencies through signing off on an action plan for the area. It was based on massive deforestation to magically create new habitat, and ridding the range of wild horses where they were present. For every DPS sub-population, threats posed by ubiquitous public lands welfare ranching such as that of billionaire Barron Hilton’s Flying M hobby ranch or the local sheep barons herds, were considered Low. Wild horses (where present) posed a Moderate threat. Tree threat was universally High. Public input was not solicited.
The Pine Nut and Desert Creek Fales area populations were already tiny. The Mount Grant population in Nevada, contiguous with the California Bodie population, had a few leks. Aurora (just inside the Nevada line) was a 1860s mining boom site, where Samuel Clemens briefly alit in failed pursuit of fortune. Roger D. McGrath’s Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, cites Samuel Young’s journal “Bodie Creek and the East Walker River supplied the fisherman with trout and the hills were full of sage-hen …”. Pinyon-juniper “dotted the hills”. Spurious vegetation models now used by state and federal agencies to justify massive deforestation ignore the historical record. Decades ago, Ron Lanner described this willful historical amnesia in the long running War on Trees in The Pinon Pine, a Natural and Cultural History.
The Bodie country is now the only place with a fair number of leks left, and the complex landscape features required by grouse. It is an island of higher elevation sage and bitterbrush, aspen groves, and pinyon-juniper on steeper slopes plunging down towards Mono Lake, with meadows and springs for grouse broods, and a backdrop of the Sierras towering to the West. Pronghorn, white-tailed jackrabbits, mountain quail, pinyon jays and a few pikas and pygmy rabbits still persist. Hilton cows had long pounded Bodie’s shrinking meadows and springs, at times trespassing within a State Historical Park site. The operation was recently purchased by conservation interests. Whether grazing continues to gnaw away at the habitat remains to be seen. Other cattle and sheep operations continue to expand cheatgrass and dry up meadows. Agency treatments are fast-forwarding weed invasion by destroying the trees, creating hotter, drier sites.
The South Mono population consists of the Long Valley, Granite, and Parker areas. Parker bird numbers are down to just about zero. The state is now artificially inseminating hens captured elsewhere, and releasing birds at Parker. The White Mountain population on the Inyo Forest has pockets of habitat, but information has always been vague and spotty.
How could Jewell have arrived at her Earth Day Not Warranted finding for the DPS? Statistical sleight of hand helped save the day. USGS produced a paper claiming that the population was stable, based on “Hierarchical Integrated Population Modeling”, a heaping pile of statistical BS, divorced from the realities of wild ecosystems and common sense. It looked at a single 10 year period ending in 2012, and ignored the longer cyclic pattern of sage-grouse populations – like a rollercoaster with highs and lows, and both getting ever lower with each cycle.
Zinke Draws a Bead
Now Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has drawn a bead on the Jewell Grouse Plans, with certain evisceration of any positive provisions they may contain and further insertion of western states and counties into public land habitat decisions. He’s even embraced the latest Wyoming legislature scheme for hatchery-raised grouse. If any birds survive life in a hatchery, they will be sitting ducks for eagles and coyotes and may introduce disease into wild populations. BLM is plowing ahead with a massive new Gas development that arose under Jewell, the “Normally Pressured Lance” project right by the infamous Jonah Field. Perhaps the developer will “mitigate” by paying for more cages in the hatchery, as Interior’s Energy Domination juggernaut rolls on. Congress perennially threatens to prohibit ESA Listing, thwarting environmental litigation. And of course the Trump administration and Congress are intent on dismantling the ESA.
Jewell’s Not Warranted findings deceived the public on the plight of sage-grouse, while blowing through nearly a billion dollars. As numbers continue to slide, those of us who have been calling for listing and real habitat protections for 20 years will sadly watch the birds go under. There is now much lamentation in environmental circles over the imminent demise of the Jewell Plan amendments. They were a smokescreen, and never enough to begin with. They were built on compromise and science often tailored or twisted to arrive at the answers agencies and industry wanted, creating the false illusion of effective conservation.