[Federal Register: August 24, 2000 (Volume 65, Number 165)]
[Proposed Rules]               
[Page 51578-51584]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-day Finding and 
Commencement of Status Review for a Petition To List the Western Sage 
Grouse in Washington as Threatened or Endangered

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of petition finding and initiation of status review.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announce a 
90-day finding on a petition to list the western sage grouse 
(Centrocercus urophasianus phaios) in Washington as an endangered or 
threatened species pursuant to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as 
amended. We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or 
commercial information indicating that listing western sage grouse in 
Washington, as a distinct population segment, may be warranted. We are 
initiating a status review to determine if listing this population 
segment is warranted.

DATES: The finding announced in this document was made August 18, 2000. 
To be considered in the 12-month finding for this petition, information 
and comments should be submitted to us by October 23, 2000.

ADDRESSES: Information, comments, or questions concerning this petition 
should be submitted to the Supervisor, Upper Columbia River Basin Field 
Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 11103 E. Montgomery Drive, 
Spokane, Washington 99206. The petition finding, supporting data, and 
comments are available for public inspection, by appointment, during 
normal business hours at the above address.

or telephone (509) 893-8020.



    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act), as 
amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), requires that we make a finding on 
whether a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species, or to 
revise a critical habitat designation, presents substantial scientific 
or commercial information to demonstrate that the petitioned action may 
be warranted. To the maximum extent practicable, this finding is to be 
made within 90 days of receipt of the petition,

[[Page 51579]]

and the finding is to be published promptly in the Federal Register. If 
we find that substantial information was presented, we are required to 
promptly commence a review of the status of the species involved, if 
one has not already been initiated under our internal candidate 
assessment process.
    The processing of this petition conforms with our Listing Priority 
Guidance published in the Federal Register on October 22, 1999 (64 FR 
57114). The guidance clarifies the order in which we will process 
rulemakings. The highest priority is processing emergency listing rules 
for any species determined to face a significant and imminent risk to 
its well-being. Second priority is processing final determinations on 
proposed additions to the lists of endangered and threatened wildlife 
and plants. Third priority is processing new proposals to add species 
to the lists. The processing of administrative petition findings 
(petitions filed under section 4 of the Act) is the fourth priority. 
The processing of this 90-day petition finding is a fourth priority, 
and is being completed in accordance with the current Listing Priority 
    We have made a 90-day finding on a petition to list the western 
sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus phaios) in Washington. The 
petition, dated May 14, 1999, was submitted by the Northwest Ecosystem 
Alliance and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, and was received by us 
on May 28, 1999. The petition requested the listing of western sage 
grouse in Washington as threatened or endangered. The letter clearly 
identified itself as a petition and contained the names, signatures, 
and addresses of the petitioners. Accompanying the petition was 
supporting information relating to the taxonomy, ecology, and past and 
present distribution of the species, as well as the threats faced by 
the western sage grouse in Washington.
    The petitioners requested listing for the Washington population of 
western sage grouse and not the species rangewide. We consider this 
request appropriate because, although we do not base listing decisions 
on political subdivisions except international boundaries, we can 
consider a population of a vertebrate species or subspecies as a 
listable entity under the Act if the population is recognized as a 
distinct population segment (DPS) (61 FR 4722). We can also expand the 
scope of our review of petitions to the species rangewide, should 
expansion be appropriate based on our knowledge of the available 
    The information regarding the description and natural history of 
sage grouse, below, has been condensed from the following sources: 
Aldrich 1963, Johnsgard 1973, Connelly et al. 1988, Fischer et al. 
1993, Drut 1994, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) 
1995, Washington Sage and Columbian Sage Grouse Workshop (WSCSGW) 1996 
and 1998, and Schroeder et al. 1999a.
    Sage grouse, also known as sage fowl, spine-tailed grouse, fool 
hen, cock-of-the-plains, and sage chicken, are gallinaceous (chicken-
like, ground-nesting) birds, and are the largest North American grouse 
species. Adult males range in size from 66 to 76 centimeters (cm) (26 
to 30 inches (in)) and weigh between 2 and 3 kilograms (kg) (4 and 7 
pounds (lb)); adult females range in size from 48 to 58 cm (19 to 23 
in) and weigh between 1 and 2 kg (2 and 4 lb). Males and females have 
dark grayish-brown body plumage with many small gray and white 
speckles, fleshy yellow combs over the eyes, long pointed tails, and 
dark-green toes. Males also have blackish chin and throat feathers, 
conspicuous phylloplumes (specialized erectile feathers) at the back of 
the head and neck, and white feathers around the neck and upper belly 
forming a ruff. During breeding displays, males also exhibit olive-
green apteria (fleshy bare patches of skin) on their breasts.
    Sage grouse depend on a variety of shrub steppe habitats throughout 
their life cycle, and are particularly tied to several species of 
sagebrush (Artemesia spp). Adult sage grouse rely on sagebrush 
throughout much of the year to provide roosting cover and food, and 
depend almost exclusively on sagebrush for food during the winter. If 
shrub cover is not available, they will roost in snow burrows. While 
average dispersal movements are generally less than 35 kilometers (km) 
(21 miles (mi)), sage grouse may disperse up to 160 km (100 mi) between 
seasonal use areas. Sage grouse also exhibit strong site fidelity 
(loyalty to a particular area), and are capable of dispersing over 
areas of unsuitable habitat.
    A wide variety of forb (any herb plant that is not a grass) species 
are used as forage by adult sage grouse from spring to early fall, and 
hens require an abundance of forbs for pre-laying and nesting periods. 
An assortment of forb and insect species form important nutritional 
components for chicks during the early stages of development. Sage 
grouse typically seek out more mesic (moist) habitats that provide 
greater amounts of succulent forbs and insects during the summer and 
early fall. Winter habitat use varies based upon snow accumulations and 
elevational gradients, and sage grouse likely choose winter habitats 
based upon forage availability.
    During the spring breeding season, male sage grouse gather together 
and perform courtship displays on areas called leks, primarily during 
the morning hours just after dawn. Leks consist of patches of bare 
soil, short grass steppe, windswept ridges, exposed knolls, or other 
relatively open sites, and they are often surrounded by more dense 
shrub steppe cover, which is used for roosting or predator evasion 
during the breeding season. Leks range in size from less than 0.4 
hectare (ha) (1 acre (ac)) to over 40 ha (100 ac), contain several to 
hundreds of males, and are usually situated in areas of high female 
use. Leks used over many consecutive years (historic leks) are 
typically larger than, and often surrounded by, smaller and less stable 
satellite leks. Males defend individual territories within leks and 
perform elaborate displays with their specialized plumage and 
vocalizations to attract females for mating. Relatively few, dominant 
males account for the majority of breeding on a given lek.
    After mating, females may move a maximum distance of 36 km (22 mi) 
depending on the availability of suitable nesting habitat, and 
typically select nest sites under sagebrush cover. Nests are relatively 
simple and consist of scrapes on the ground, which are sometimes lined 
with feathers and vegetation. Clutch sizes range from 6 to 13 eggs, and 
nest success ranges from 10 to 63 percent. Chicks begin to fly at 2 to 
3 weeks of age, and broods remain together for up to 12 weeks. Most 
juvenile mortality occurs during nesting and the chicks' flightless 
stage, and is due primarily to predation or severe weather conditions. 
Shrub canopy and grass cover provide concealment for sage grouse nests 
and young, and may be critical for reproductive success.
    Sage grouse typically live between 1 and 4 years and have an annual 
mortality rate of roughly 50 to 55 percent, with females generally 
having a higher survival rate than males. Up to 50 percent of all sage 
grouse mortality is caused by predation, from both avian (e.g., hawks, 
eagles, and ravens) and ground (e.g., coyotes, badgers, and ground 
squirrels) predators.
    Prior to European expansion into western North America, sage grouse 
(Centrocercus urophasianus) were believed to occur in 16 States and 3 
Canadian provinces (Schroeder et al. 1999a), although their historic 
status in Kansas and Arizona is unclear (Colorado Sage Grouse Working 

[[Page 51580]]

(CSGWG) 1997). Currently, sage grouse occur in 11 States and 2 Canadian 
provinces: ranging from extreme southeastern Alberta and southwestern 
Saskatchewan, south to western Colorado, and west to eastern 
California, Oregon, and Washington. In addition to these States, sage 
grouse occur in southern Idaho, northern Nevada, western and northern 
Utah, Wyoming, southern and eastern Montana, and extreme western North 
and South Dakota. Sage grouse have been extirpated from Nebraska, 
Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, and from British Columbia, 
Canada (Braun 1998). Range wide, sage grouse distributions have 
declined in a number of areas, most notably along the periphery of 
their historic range.
    Little substantiated information is available regarding the 
historic abundance of sage grouse throughout their range. However, 
within the literature, the general consensus is that considerable 
declines have occurred from historic population levels, and much of the 
overall decline occurred from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s (Hornaday 
1916, Crawford and Lutz 1985, Drut 1994, WDFW 1995, Coggins and 
Crawford 1996, Braun 1998, Schroeder et al. 1999a).
    A number of studies since the mid-1900s provide sage grouse density 
estimates for a range of habitats considered of low to high quality 
(Johnsgard 1973, Drut et al. 1994a, WDFW 1995). Assuming 1 grouse per 
square kilometer (km\2\) (0.4 square mi (mi\2\) as an approximate lower 
limit, 10 grouse per km\2\ (0.4 mi\2\) as an approximate upper limit 
(Michael Schroeder, WDFW, pers. comm. 1999), and the most recent 
estimate of historic sage grouse distribution, roughly between 1.6 
million and 16 million sage grouse would have occurred rangewide prior 
to European expansion across western North America.
    Braun (1998) provides a range of values for current breeding sage 
grouse abundance by State and Canadian province calculated by males on 
leks in the spring (Table 1). In order to estimate the total current 
range-wide abundance of sage grouse, the following estimates of maximum 
abundance for the four States containing over 20,000 sage grouse were 
made from the available information. For Oregon, the high population 
estimate of approximately 66,000 for 1993 was used (after Willis et al. 
1993). For the remaining three States, it was assumed that the most 
recent available harvest estimates (Idaho 1996, Wyoming 1998, Montana 
1998) accounted for roughly 10 percent (after Zablan 1993) of the total 
State population. These assumptions result in upper limit estimates of 
189,000, 151,000, and 72,000 sage grouse in the spring breeding 
population (i.e., post-harvest) in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, 
respectively. Considering Table 1 and the above information, currently 
there are approximately 100,000-500,000 sage grouse range wide.

 Table 1. Current Estimated Sage Grouse Abundance (Individuals in the 1998 Breeding Population) in Various Areas
                                      of North America (After Braun 1998).
   500<plus-minus>              2,000                 10,000                 20,000                >20,000
Alberta                North Dakota           California             Colorado               Idaho
Saskatchewan           South Dakota                                  Nevada                 Oregon
                       Washington                                    Utah                   Montana

    Based on the best available information, the most conservative 
estimate indicates that there has been roughly a 69 percent reduction 
from historic range-wide sage grouse abundance. Given a worst-case 
scenario, sage grouse abundance has declined more than 99 percent from 
historic levels. The true decline in sage grouse abundance likely falls 
between these upper and lower limits.
    The historic distribution of western sage grouse (Centrocercus 
urophasianus phaios) extended from extreme south-central British 
Columbia southward through eastern Washington and Oregon, except in 
extreme southeastern Oregon near the Idaho/Nevada borders. Sage grouse 
inhabiting California and extreme western Nevada are thought to 
represent an intermediate form between the western and eastern (C.u. 
urophasianus) subspecies (Aldrich 1963). Currently, western sage grouse 
occur in southeastern Oregon and central Washington (Johnsgard 1973, 
Drut 1994, WDFW 1995).
    Currently, two subspecies of sage grouse are recognized by the 
American Ornithologists' Union (AOU 1957). The eastern/western 
taxonomic split (circa 1940s) was based on plumage coloration and 
relatively few specimens representing the western birds, including 
seven from Oregon, three from Washington, and one from California 
(Aldrich 1946). With regard to current taxonomic standards and 
information generated over the last few decades, these subspecies 
designations may be inappropriate (Johnsgard 1983, Schroeder et al. 
1999a). Considering recent work on other populations of sage grouse 
(i.e., in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah) and the 
uncertainties surrounding the subspecific designations, the taxon is 
likely to undergo formal reevaluation and ordering in the near future. 
This reevaluation is likely to split the taxon into two separate 
species, discontinuing recognition of the eastern and western 
subspecies and recognizing only the northern sage grouse and Gunnison 
sage grouse in Colorado and Utah (WSSGTC 1999).
    Historically, western sage grouse in Washington ranged from 
Oroville in the north, west to the Cascade foothills, east to the 
Spokane River, and south to the Oregon border (Yocom 1956). Historic 
references indicate there were large numbers of sage grouse in 
Washington (Sveum 1995, WDFW 1995), and annual State harvests averaged 
roughly 1,800 birds from 1951 to 1973. Harvest rates declined from 900 
in 1974 to 18 in 1987, and Washington closed the sage grouse hunting 
season in 1988 (WDFW 1995). Western sage grouse have been extirpated 
from seven counties in Washington and currently occupy approximately 10 
percent of their historic range in the State.
    Two populations of western sage grouse remain in Washington, 
roughly totaling 1,000 birds (WSGWG 1998). One occurs primarily on 
private and State-owned lands in Douglas County (approximately 650 
birds); the other occurs at the Yakima Training Center (YTC), 
administered by the Army, in Kittitas and Yakima Counties 
(approximately 350 birds). These two populations are isolated from the 
Oregon population (WDFW 1995, Livingston 1998) and nearly isolated from 
one another (Schroeder, pers. comm. 1999).

[[Page 51581]]

    Except for Wallowa County, western sage grouse were distributed 
throughout central and eastern Oregon in sagebrush-dominated areas 
until the early 1900s (Gabrielson and Jewett 1940). Presently, Malheur, 
Harney, and Lake Counties harbor the bulk of western sage grouse in 
Oregon (roughly 24,000 to 58,000 birds), with the remaining portion 
(roughly 3,000 to 8,000 birds) split among Baker, Crook, Deschutes, 
Grant, Klamath, Union, and Wheeler Counties (after Willis et al. 1993). 
Sage grouse in extreme southern Malheur and Harney Counties fall within 
the recognized range of the eastern subspecies (Drut 1994).
    Estimates of the historic abundance of western sage grouse range 
from roughly 200,000 to 2,000,000 birds. Further, it is estimated that 
the northwestern extension of sage grouse range (i.e., central Oregon 
northward), which includes nearly all of the Columbia Plateau 
biogeographic zone (after Wisdom et al. 1998), historically harbored 
roughly 100,000 to 1,000,000 birds. The historic population in 
Washington is estimated to have been between 60,000 and 600,000. Using 
best- and worst-case scenarios, western sage grouse abundance has 
declined between 67 and 97 percent from historic levels. Estimates of 
the decline from historic abundance for the northwestern extension of 
the species' range as a whole, and for sage grouse in Washington in 
particular, are equal to or exceed 97 percent.
    While the petitioners requested that we list the western sage 
grouse under the Act as a threatened or endangered species in the State 
of Washington, we do not base listing decisions on political 
subdivisions, except international boundaries. However, as discussed 
earlier, we have developed policy that provides for the recognition of 
distinct population segments (DPSs) of vertebrate species and 
subspecies for consideration under the Act (61 FR 4722).
    Under our DPS policy, two elements are used to assess whether a 
population under consideration for listing may be recognized as a DPS. 
These elements are: (1) A population segment's discreteness from the 
remainder of the taxon, and (2) the population segment's significance 
to the taxon to which it belongs. If we determine that a population 
being considered for listing may represent a DPS, then the level of 
threat to the population is evaluated based on the five listing factors 
established by the Act to determine if listing as either threatened or 
endangered may be warranted. Formal recognition of a DPS and evaluation 
of its listing status under the Act are determined during status 
reviews, which are initiated after 90-day petition findings that find 
there is substantial information to indicate that a listing may be 
    Two criteria are used to determine if a population segment may be 
considered discrete from the remainder of the taxon. The first is 
isolation from other populations as a consequence of physical, 
physiological, ecological, or behavioral factors. The second is if the 
population segment can be delimited by international governmental 
boundaries within which differences in control of exploitation, 
management of habitat, conservation status, or regulatory mechanisms 
exist that are significant in light of section 4(a)(1)(D) of the Act. 
As western sage grouse have been extirpated from British Columbia, 
Canada, the international boundary criterion is not addressed for the 
purposes of this 90-day petition finding.
    Until recently, the two populations of sage grouse that remain in 
Washington were considered relatively continuous, and may now represent 
isolated components of a single metapopulation (WDFW 1995, Schroeder et 
al. 1999b). Sporadic sightings outside current concentrations indicate 
some minimal interaction and, possibly, genetic interchange between 
them (WDFW 1995; Schroeder; pers. comm. August 18, 1999; Pounds, pers. 
comm. September 2, 1999). However, a number of telemetry studies have 
not documented their intermixing (Schroeder; pers. comm. 1999; Pounds, 
pers. comm. 1999), and it is likely that they are effectively isolated 
due to a variety of human influences.
    The next closest sage grouse population is located over 240 km (150 
mi) to the south, in central Oregon. With regard to sage grouse life 
history (e.g., seasonal movements, dispersal behavior) and recent 
census information, the Washington birds may be considered fully 
discrete from the Oregon populations (WDFW 1995; Schroeder, pers. comm. 
1999; Pounds, pers. comm. 1999).
    Based on this information, we find that the population of sage 
grouse that occurs in Washington may be discrete from the remainder of 
the taxon.
    The DPS policy describes a number of factors, singly or in 
combination, that may demonstrate the significance of a discrete 
population segment to its taxon, including: (1) Persistence of the 
discrete population segment in an ecological setting unusual or unique 
for the taxon; (2) evidence that loss of the discrete population 
segment would result in a significant gap in the range of the taxon; 
(3) evidence that the discrete population segment represents the only 
surviving natural occurrence of a taxon that may be more abundant 
elsewhere as an introduced population outside its historic range; and 
(4) evidence that the discrete population segment differs markedly from 
other population segments in its genetic characteristics. Those factors 
that may have bearing on the sage grouse that occur in Washington are 
addressed separately below.
    Sage grouse in Douglas County, in north-central Washington, appear 
to display a greater reproductive effort compared with other 
populations throughout the species' range (Schroeder 1997). This 
increased effort includes more eggs laid per nest and higher rates of 
nesting and renesting attempts. Such differences in behavioral and 
reproduction ecology suggest that this area represents an unusual and 
unique ecological setting compared to the rest of the species' range. 
However, it is difficult to distinguish whether these results represent 
a regional difference within the species, or if they may be related to 
the habitat quality or type available, variable environmental 
conditions, anthropogenic influences unique to the area (e.g., reduced 
and fragmented habitats, disturbance), or even study design. 
Identifying the cause(s) of a true increased reproductive effort may 
hold important implications for the region's sage grouse, and 
conservation of the species in general.
    A number of studies address the potential influences of 
biogeography on a species. The following provides preliminary support 
to the claim that loss of the potential DPS would result in a 
significant gap in the range of the taxon.
    The extent to which biogeographic zones have acted to differentiate 
regional sage grouse populations is currently unclear. However, the 
different habitat use patterns exhibited by sage grouse may have 
significant consequences for the fitness of populations occupying 
different zones, and for future management decisions addressing the 
species' conservation. These consequences may include differing diet 
and nutritional preferences (Johnson and Boyce 1990, Welch et al. 1991, 
Drut et al. 1994b, Barnett and Crawford 1994), responses to fire or 
predation (DeLong et al. 1995, Fischer et al. 1996, Pyle and Crawford 
1996), and seasonal movement patterns (Connelly et al. 1988, Schroeder 
et al. 1999a).
    The significance test under the DPS policy can also be met if there 
is evidence that the population segment

[[Page 51582]]

differs markedly from other populations in its genetic characteristics. 
Relatively little genetic work has been conducted on sage grouse in 
Washington, although studies to investigate the species' range-wide 
genetic profile are underway or proposed (Quinn 1996; Quinn et al. 
1997; Benedict and Quinn 1998; Sara Oyler-McCance, University of 
Denver, pers. comm. 1999). To date, range-wide investigations include 
samples from Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and 
Washington. Currently, no clear genetic distinction occurs between the 
recognized eastern and western subspecies, or between the only sage 
grouse so far analyzed in Washington (south-central population) and the 
other sampling locales. However, these results are preliminary, and to 
what extent the forces of isolation, adaptive change, genetic drift, 
and/or inbreeding may have influenced the genetic profiles of sage 
grouse throughout the northwestern United States is unclear (Oyler-
McCance, pers. comm. 1999; Nicolas Benedict, University of Denver, 
pers. comm. 1999).
    In summary, the sage grouse population in Washington may represent 
the only occurrence of the species within the northwestern extension of 
its historic range (and the Columbia Plateau biogeographic zone). This 
area represents approximately one half of the historic range of the 
western subspecies. We currently recognize the western subspecies; 
however, this designation is undergoing expert review and may be 
discontinued in the near future. The available information indicates 
that it may be more appropriate to consider the significance of the 
sage grouse population in Washington with regard to the entire range of 
the species. Information concerning sage grouse life-history attributes 
indicates that the sage grouse in Washington may represent persistence 
of the species in an ecological setting unusual or unique for the 
taxon. The biogeographical information indicates that the loss of this 
discrete population segment may result in a significant gap in the 
range of the taxon. Finally, not enough information currently exists 
for us to determine if sage grouse within the northwestern extension of 
the species' historic distribution may exhibit a significantly 
different genetic makeup compared to the remainder of the taxon.
    Based on the available information, we find that the information is 
inconclusive either to support or refute a significance determination 
for the discrete population of sage grouse that occurs in Washington. 
Further review of the available information, and additional information 
that would be accumulated during a status review, would allow for a 
comprehensive examination of this population's significance to the 
remainder of the taxon.
    As such, the conservation status for this potential DPS in relation 
to the Act's standards for listing are addressed, below.
    A number of influences have been implicated in sage grouse 
population declines throughout the species' range (Crawford and Lutz 
1985, Blus et al. 1989, Braun et al. 1994, Drut 1994, WDFW 1995, 
Fischer et al. 1996, Connelly and Braun 1997, Schroeder et al. 1999a). 
Of primary concern is the variety of impacts to shrub steppe habitats, 
which include conversion for agricultural, urban, and mineral resources 
development, construction of utility and transportation corridors, and 
habitat degradation through overgrazing, brush control (e.g., 
prescribed burning, herbicide spraying, and chaining), altered fire 
frequencies, and exotic species invasions. Other potential influences 
that may be associated with local population declines include 
predation, excessive hunting, disease and parasitism, chemical 
applications for pest control, weather cycles, and recreational 
activities. As a result of these combined influences, sage grouse 
distribution and abundance have continued to decline over the past 
decade, and a number of populations may now be at risk throughout the 
species' range (in WSCSGW 1996 and 1998). Currently, sage grouse 
populations may be considered secure in five States, including Montana, 
Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon (Connelly and Braun 1997).
    From 1986 to 1993, roughly 500,000 cattle were grazed in the 9 
central Washington counties that historically harbored sage grouse 
(WDFW 1995). Current estimates of other livestock abundance in central 
Washington and northern Oregon are not available. Excessive grazing 
pressure can have significant impacts on the shrub steppe ecosystems 
found throughout the historic range of sage grouse (Fleischner 1994), 
and these impacts may be exacerbated in portions of the Columbia River 
Basin that support the northwestern extension of the species' range. In 
this region, excessive grazing removes current herbaceous growth and 
residual cover of native grasses and forbs, and can increase the canopy 
cover and density of sagebrush and undesirable invasive species 
(Daubenmire 1988, WDFW 1995, Livingston 1998). These impacts may be 
especially critical to the reproductive success of sage grouse 
populations during the spring nesting and brood rearing periods 
(Crawford 1997, Connelly and Braun 1997, Schroeder et al. 1999a).
    The latest available estimate (1993) of the number of cattle 
supported in Douglas County, which also supports the north-central 
population of sage grouse in Washington, is about 20,000 (WDFW 1995). 
Whether level of livestock use in the county may have negative effects 
on sage grouse or their habitats is not clear. Prior to 1992, livestock 
grazing pressure was intense throughout the area of Kittitas and Yakima 
Counties that now comprises the YTC, which supports the south-central 
population of sage grouse in Washington. In 1992, grazing intensity was 
reduced at the YTC within the sage grouse protection areas identified 
by the Army. In 1995, cattle grazing was eliminated throughout the 
installation (Livingston 1998). Twice annually during spring and fall, 
flocks of sheep are trailed through the YTC over a period of several 
weeks (Pounds, pers. comm. 1999). To what degree current livestock use 
levels may be impacting sage grouse or their habitat at the YTC is 
unknown. However, impacts from past livestock grazing are still evident 
throughout the installation (Livingston 1998).
    During the first half of the 1900s, large portions of the shrub 
steppe ecosystem in Washington were converted for dryland crop 
production (Daubenmire 1988, WDFW 1995). During the mid-1900s, a number 
of hydro-electric dams were developed on the Columbia and Snake Rivers 
in Washington. The reservoirs formed by these projects impacted native 
shrub steppe habitat adjacent to the rivers and precipitated further 
conversion of large expanses of upland shrub steppe habitat in central 
Washington for irrigated agriculture (WDFW 1995). Dobler (1994) 
estimated that approximately 60 percent of the original shrub steppe 
habitat in Washington had been converted for other, primarily 
agricultural, uses. While at much-reduced levels, shrub steppe habitat 
continues to be converted for both dryland and irrigated crop 
production. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation retains options 
for further development of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project in 
central Washington (USDI 1998). Cassidy (1997) considered major 
portions of Washington's shrub steppe ecosystem among the least 
protected areas in the State.
    Large areas of privately owned lands in Douglas and Grant Counties 
are currently withdrawn from crop

[[Page 51583]]

production and planted to native and non native cover under the Federal 
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in 1985 (USDA 1998). 
Lands under the CRP are very important to the local population of sage 
grouse in north-central Washington (Schroeder, pers. comm. 1999). A 
number of CRP contracts in Washington have expired since 1995, and more 
are scheduled to expire from now through 2002. New contracts completed 
in 1998 for Douglas County have increased the acreage of CRP lands 
potentially available for use by sage grouse. However, contracts extend 
for just 10 years, and new standards for CRP lands will be implemented 
that may require replanting of significant acreage under existing 
contracts (USDA 1998, Schroeder, pers. comm. 1999). Presently, it is 
unclear what effects these changes have had, or will have, on the 
north-central population of sage grouse in Washington.
    In 1991, the Army expanded the YTC along its northern boundary by 
approximately 24,000 ha (60,000 ac) to form its present configuration 
and size of approximately 130,000 ha (320,000 ac). One of the primary 
justifications for expansion of the installation was to reduce impacts 
to heavily used areas by allowing rotational training exercises and 
rehabilitation of impacted sites (USDD 1989). In 1994, the Army 
restationed mechanized and armored combat forces to Fort Lewis (USDD 
1994). This restationing action was undertaken to accommodate brigade-
level maneuver exercises, and may result in an increase in overall 
training activity and associated impacts at the YTC. The large-scale 
training exercises at the YTC are scheduled to occur at 18- to 24-month 
intervals, and may involve more than 10,000 troops and 1,000 tracked 
and wheeled vehicles. Various smaller-scale training exercises are also 
conducted annually at the YTC by other U.S. and allied military units 
(USDD 1989, Livingston 1998).
    In the fall of 1995, the Army conducted its first large-scale 
training exercise at the YTC following the restationing action. 
Analysis of the impacts from this exercise indicated that over 9 
percent of the sagebrush plants within the sage grouse protection areas 
experienced major structural damage. In addition, modeling exercises 
indicated that sagebrush cover would decline due to similar training 
scenarios if conducted on a biannual basis (Cadwell et al. 1996). 
Analyses of the potential impacts to other shrub steppe components that 
may be important to sage grouse at the YTC (e.g., grass, forb, and 
insect quality and abundance), or those associated with the smaller, 
ongoing training activities, are not currently available. Cadwell et 
al. (1996) suggested that native vegetation on impacted sites with 
limited soil disturbance will recover following large-scale maneuver 
exercises. In addition, the YTC conducts aggressive revegetation 
efforts for sagebrush and native grasses within the sage grouse 
protection areas (Livingston 1998), and has eliminated season-long 
grazing on the installation (USDD 1996). Evaluation of the quality or 
quantity of naturally recovered areas and the efficacy of revegetation 
efforts is currently not available.
    Natural and human-caused fire is a significant threat to sage 
grouse throughout Washington because, at increased frequencies, it can 
remove sagebrush from the vegetation assemblage (USDI 1994, WDFW 1995). 
Sagebrush is easily killed by fire (Daubenmire 1988) and, in the 
absence of a sufficient seed source, may not readily reinvade sites 
where it has been removed. Fire may be especially damaging at the YTC, 
where military training activities provide multiple ignition sources, 
vegetative cover is relatively continuous, and invasive species such as 
cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and knapweed (Centauria spp.) may provide 
fine fuels that can carry a fire. The Army considered fire management 
and control in its planning efforts for the restationing action (USDD 
1996), and YTC has since developed a detailed fire management plan 
(USDD 1998). However, the potential for relatively large range fires to 
occur at the YTC remains. In 1996, over 25,000 ha (60,000 ac) of shrub 
steppe habitat, much of it currently and potentially used by sage 
grouse, was burned as a result of training activities. Livingston 
(1998) indicates that a fire of this magnitude within the identified 
sage grouse protection areas would jeopardize the species' persistence 
at the installation.
    Well-managed hunting with harvest rates below roughly 30 percent 
are not believed to have significant impacts on healthy sage grouse 
populations (Schroeder et al. 1999a). Harvest rates that exceed 30 
percent or hunting of relatively small, isolated populations may act to 
limit sage grouse abundance in some areas. Western sage grouse in 
Washington have not been subject to hunting since 1988 (WDFW 1995).
    The fragmented, isolated nature of the populations of sage grouse 
that occur in Washington is a concern for the conservation of the 
species in the northwestern extension of its historic range. 
Preliminary viability analyses conducted by the WSGWG (1998) indicate 
that neither local population is likely viable at their current levels 
over the long term (approximately 100 years). In addition to the 
relatively large-scale impacts on native shrub steppe habitat (above), 
other naturally occurring impacts and human influences of lesser 
magnitude may pose threats to Washington's isolated local populations.
    Potential risks to small and/or fragmented populations include 
direct impacts to individuals from inclement weather conditions, 
altered predator demographics or behavior, agricultural practices, 
vehicle collisions, pest control measures, and military training. 
Impacts may also result from indirect disturbance of the local 
populations caused by agricultural and grazing activities, 
transportation corridors, recreation, and military training events 
(over-flights, troop movements, etc.). The relatively small, isolated 
populations of sage grouse in Washington may also be at greater risk to 
the deleterious effects from inbreeding. Conversely, outbreeding 
depression may be a concern for reintroduction efforts in Washington. 
It is unlikely that any one of the above factors has played a 
significant role in the population declines and range reductions of 
sage grouse in the northwestern extension of their historic range. 
However, these influences may now play an important role in the 
dynamics of the relatively small and isolated local populations that 
remain in Washington.
    We have reviewed the petition, literature cited in the petition, 
other pertinent literature, and information available in our files, and 
consulted with biologists and researchers familiar with sage grouse. 
After reviewing this information, we find that the Washington 
population of western sage grouse may be both discrete and significant, 
and so may satisfy our criteria for designation as a DPS. On the basis 
of the best scientific and commercial information available, we also 
find that sufficient information exists with regard to the five listing 
factors established by the Act and ongoing conservation measures to 
indicate that listing the population of sage grouse that occurs in 
Washington as threatened or endangered may be warranted.
    In making this finding, we recognize that there have been declines 
in sage grouse populations primarily attributed to the loss and 
degradation of shrub steppe habitat. These impacts are likely due to a 
combination of factors, including crop production, over-grazing by 
livestock, fire, military training, rural

[[Page 51584]]

and suburban development, dam construction, herbicide spraying, 
recreation, and other factors. The petition presents evidence that the 
population of this species that occurs in Washington is at risk. We 
also recognize that various State and Federal agencies in Washington, 
and throughout the species' historic distribution, are actively 
managing the birds to try and improve their overall population status 
and/or attempting to restore them to currently unoccupied habitats.
    Section 4(b)(3)(B) of the Act requires that, to the maximum extent 
practicable within 12 months from the date that a petition presenting 
substantial information is received, we make a finding as to whether it 
is warranted to list the petitioned species as threatened or 
endangered. Due to a backlog of court-ordered listing and critical 
habitat actions and funding constraints, a status review for the sage 
grouse population that occurs in Washington will probably not be 
conducted until May 2001. If the 12-month finding determines listing 
the western sage grouse in Washington is warranted, the designation of 
critical habitat would be addressed in the subsequent proposed rule.

Public Information Solicited

    We are required to promptly commence a review of the status of the 
species after making a positive 90-day finding on a petition. With 
regard to this positive petition finding, we are requesting information 
primarily concerning the species' population status and trends, extent 
of fragmentation and isolation of other population segments, 
significance or nonsignificance of the Washington population and/or any 
other discrete population segments, potential threats to the species, 
and ongoing management measures that may be important with regard to 
the conservation of sage grouse in Washington or throughout the 
remainder of the taxon's historic range. In addition, we request 
information relating to the designation of critical habitat for western 
sage grouse in Washington.

References Cited

    A complete list of all references cited herein is available on 
request from the Upper Columbia River Basin Field Office, (See 
ADDRESSES section).

    Author: The primary author of this document is Chris Warren, U.S. 
Fish and Wildlife Service, 11103 E. Montgomery Drive, Spokane, 
Washington, 99206.

    Authority: The authority for this action is the Endangered 
Species Act (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: August 18, 2000.
Jamie Rappaport Clark,
Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 00-21610 Filed 8-23-00; 8:45 am]