[Federal Register: January 7, 2004 (Volume 69, Number 4)]
[Page 933-936]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-day Finding for 
a Petition To List the Eastern Subspecies of the Greater Sage-Grouse as 

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of 90-day petition finding.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce a 
90-day finding for a petition to list the eastern subspecies of the 
greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianus) as 
endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We 
find that the petition does not present substantial scientific or 
commercial information indicating that listing this subspecies may be 
warranted. This finding is based on our determination that there is a 
lack of evidence to indicate that the eastern sage-grouse is a valid 
subspecies, and our determination that the eastern population of sage-
grouse does not constitute a Distinct Population Segment (DPS). We will 
not be initiating a further status review in response to this petition. 
We ask the public to submit to us any new information that becomes 
available concerning the status of the species or threats to it. This 
information will help us monitor and encourage the conservation of the 

DATES: The finding announced in this document was made on January 2, 
2004. You may submit new information concerning this species for our 
consideration at any time.

ADDRESSES: The complete file for this finding is available for 
inspection, during normal business hours, at the Wyoming Ecological 
Services Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4000 Airport 
Parkway, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82001. Submit new information, materials, 
comments, or questions concerning this taxon to the Service at the 
above address.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Brian T. Kelly, at the address given 
in the ADDRESSES section (telephone 307-772-2374; facsimile 307-772-



    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as 
amended (Act) (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), requires that we make a finding 
on whether a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species presents 
substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the 
petitioned action may be warranted. We are to base this finding on all 
information available to us at the time we make the finding. To the 
maximum extent practicable, we must make this finding within 90 days of 
receiving the petition and publish a notice of the finding promptly in 
the Federal Register. Our standard for substantial information with 
regard to a 90-day petition finding is ``that amount of information 
that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the measure 
proposed in the petition may be warranted'' (50 CFR 424.14(b)). If our 
finding is that substantial information was presented, we are required 
to promptly begin a review of the status of the species, if one has not 
already been initiated under our internal candidate assessment process. 
In order to determine if substantial information is available, the 
Service reviewed the subject petition, literature cited in the 
petition, information provided by recognized experts or agencies cited 

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the petition, and information otherwise available in Service files.
    On July 3, 2002, the Institute for Wildlife Protection submitted a 
petition requesting that we list the eastern subspecies of the greater 
sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianus) as endangered. One 
part of the petition states that the eastern subspecies of the greater 
sage-grouse occurs in eastern Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, 
Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and 
another part of the petition notes that the present range also includes 
southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. The petition clearly 
identified itself as such and contained the name, address, and 
signature of the petitioning organization's representative. 
Accompanying the petition was information related to the taxonomy, life 
history, demographics, movements, habitats, threats, and the past and 
present distribution of eastern sage-grouse. The petitioner contends 
that both the range of the eastern sage-grouse and the number of 
individuals have decreased significantly, and that the subspecies has 
become isolated into a series of fragmented populations.
    Previously, on January 24, 2002, the Institute for Wildlife 
Protection submitted a petition requesting that we list the western 
subspecies of the greater sage-grouse (C. u. phaios) as either 
threatened or endangered. In our 90-day finding on the western 
subspecies petition, dated February 7, 2003 (68 FR 6500), we determined 
that the petition did not present substantial scientific or commercial 
information indicating that listing the western subspecies was 
warranted. We based our finding on a lack of scientific evidence to 
support a separation of the greater sage grouse into eastern and 
western subspecies, and our determination that the western population 
of sage-grouse did not constitute a distinct population segment (DPS).
    In a letter dated March 19, 2003, the petitioner acknowledged (but 
did not agree with) our position that there is no basis for recognizing 
subspecies of the greater sage-grouse, and requested that the Service 
combine the petitions for the western and eastern subspecies of the 
greater sage-grouse into one petition to list the species as 
endangered. We have treated this request as a new petition to list the 
greater sage-grouse. In addition, we have two other petitions to list 
the greater sage-grouse. One of those petitions was from Mr. Craig C. 
Dremann, dated June 18, 2002, to list the greater sage-grouse as 
endangered. Mr. Dremann's petition summarizes several threats to the 
species based on his review of Barrett et al. 2000. The other petition, 
dated December 22, 2003, was submitted to us by the American Lands 
Alliance and 19 other organizations, requesting that we list the 
greater sage-grouse as endangered. We intend to address all outstanding 
petitions to list the greater sage-grouse within 90 days of the latest 
petition (by March 29, 2004) subject to legal commitments, resource 
limitations and competing priorities.
    This 90-day petition finding is made in accordance with a court 
order that requires us to complete a finding on the petition to list 
the eastern subspecies of the greater sage-grouse within 90 days of 
October 3, 2003 (Institute for Wildlife Protection Inc., et al. v. 
Norton et al. (C03-05006-RBL)).

Biology and Distribution

    Our 90-day petition finding on the western subspecies of greater 
sage-grouse, dated February 7, 2003 (68 FR 6500), presented detailed 
information regarding the description, natural history, and 
distribution of the greater sage-grouse (C. urophasianus) (sage-grouse) 
(American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) 2000), taken from the following 
sources: Aldrich 1963; Johnsgard 1973; Connelly et al. 1988; Connelly 
et al. 2000; Fischer et al. 1993; Drut 1994; Western States Sage and 
Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee (WSSCSTGTC) 1996 and 
1998; and Schroeder et al. 1999. That finding should be consulted for 
greater detail, but a brief synopsis of habitat and distribution 
    Sage-grouse depend on a variety of shrub-steppe habitats throughout 
their life cycle, and are particularly tied to several species of 
sagebrush (Artemisia spp.). Throughout much of the year, adult sage-
grouse rely on sagebrush to provide roosting cover and food. The type 
and condition of shrub-steppe plant communities strongly affect habitat 
use by sage grouse populations, but these populations also exhibit 
strong site fidelity (loyalty to a particular area). Sage-grouse may 
disperse up to 160 kilometers (km) (100 miles (mi)) between seasonal 
use areas; however, average individual movements are generally less 
than 34 km (21 mi). Sage-grouse also are capable of dispersing over 
areas of unsuitable habitat (Connelly et al. 2000).
    During the spring breeding season, male sage-grouse gather together 
and perform courtship displays on display areas called leks. Areas of 
bare soil, short-grass steppe, windswept ridges, exposed knolls, or 
other relatively open sites may serve as leks. Leks, which often are 
surrounded by denser shrub-steppe cover, range in size from less than 
0.4 hectare (ha) (1 acre (ac)) to over 40 ha (100 ac). Some leks are 
used for many years. These ``historic'' leks are typically larger than, 
and often surrounded by, smaller ``satellite'' leks, which may be less 
stable in size and location. A group of leks where males and females 
may interact within a breeding season or between years is called a lek 
complex. Males defend individual territories within leks. Relatively 
few dominant males account for the majority of breeding on a given lek 
(Schroeder et al. 1999).
    Females may travel up to 35 km (22 mi) after mating. They typically 
select nest sites under sagebrush cover, although other shrub or 
bunchgrass species are sometimes used (Connelly et al. 2000). Nests are 
relatively simple, consisting of scrapes on the ground that are 
occasionally lined with feathers and vegetation. Sage-grouse typically 
seek out more mesic (moist) habitats that provide greater amounts of 
succulent forbs and insects during the summer and early fall. During 
the winter, they depend almost exclusively on sagebrush for food.
    Prior to European expansion into western North America, sage-grouse 
were believed to occur in 16 States and 3 Canadian provinces: 
Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, 
Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, New 
Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan 
(Schroeder et al. 1999; Young et al. 2000). The distribution of sage-
grouse has contracted in a number of areas, most notably along the 
northern and northwestern periphery and in the center of their historic 
range. 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. Sage-grouse have been extirpated 
from Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and British 
Columbia (Schroeder et al. 1999; Young et al. 2000). The vast majority 
of the current distribution of the greater sage-grouse is within the 
United States.
    Rangewide estimates of sage-grouse abundance prior to European 
settlement in western North America vary (65 FR 51578, August 24, 
2000). The WSSCSTGTC (1999) estimated that there may have been about 
1.1 million birds in 1800. Much of the overall decline in sage-grouse 
abundance apparently occurred from the late 1800s

[[Page 935]]

to the mid-1900s (Hornaday 1916; Crawford 1982; Drut 1994; Washington 
Department of Fish and Wildlife 1995; Braun 1998; Schroeder et al. 
1999), but other population declines apparently occurred in the 1920s 
and 1930s, and then again in the 1960s and 1970s (Connelly and Braun 
1997). Braun (1998) estimated that the 1998 rangewide spring population 
numbered about 157,000 sage-grouse. The WSSSTGTC (1999) estimates the 
sage-grouse population has declined about 86 percent from historic 
levels to the present.


    Eastern and western subspecies of sage-grouse were first described 
in 1946 by Aldrich. Aldrich (1946) examined 11 specimens collected in 
Washington (3), Oregon (7), and California (1) and, on the basis of 
slight color differences in the plumage, concluded that 2 subspecies 
existed: one with a more limited distribution in the northwestern 
portion of the range of the greater sage-grouse and one in the eastern 
portion of the range. The distribution of the western subspecies was 
described as occurring from north to central-southern British Columbia; 
west to central Washington, central Oregon, and northeastern 
California; south to northeastern California; east to southeast-central 
and northeastern Oregon (possibly central-western Idaho) and central-
eastern Washington (Aldrich 1946). The eastern subspecies was 
considered to comprise the remainder of the range of the greater sage-
grouse, extending from southern Idaho to western North and South 
Dakota, southwesterly to western Colorado, and west through central 
Utah and Nevada (Johnsgard 1973). The distribution of western sage-
grouse was modified to reclassify sage-grouse in northwestern Nevada 
and northern California as an intermediate form (Aldrich and Duvall 
1955; AOU 1957; Aldrich 1963).
    The validity of the taxonomic separation between an eastern and a 
western subspecies has been questioned (Johnsgard 1983; Johnsgard 2002; 
Benedict et al. 2003). In 1957, the AOU recognized a subspecies 
division within the sage-grouse taxon. Since that time, however, it has 
not conducted a review of this subspecies distinction. The AOU stopped 
listing subspecies as of the 6th (1983) edition of its Checklist, 
although it recommended the continued use of the 5th edition for 
taxonomy at the subspecific level. The AOU has not formally or 
officially reviewed the subspecific treatment of most North American 
birds, although it is working towards that (Richard C. Banks, National 
Museum of Natural History, pers. comm. with Oregon Field Office of FWS 
2000, 2002). Therefore, the western and eastern subspecies of sage 
grouse are still recognized by the AOU, based on their 1957 
consideration of the taxon.
    In our 90-day finding on the petition to list the western 
subspecies of the greater sage-grouse (February 7, 2003; 68 FR 6500), 
we concluded there is no basis to recognize the eastern or western 
subspecies of the greater sage-grouse due to relatively recent 
information concerning the lack of distinct genetic differences between 
the two, lack of ecological or physical factors that might indicate 
differentiation between the populations, and evidence that birds freely 
cross the supposed boundary zone between the subspecies. That finding 
provides more detailed information, but a brief synopsis follows.
    The boundary between the western and eastern subspecies was 
generally described as occurring along a line starting on the Oregon-
Nevada border south of Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and 
ending near Nyssa, Oregon (Aldrich and Duvall 1955; Aldrich 1963). No 
physical barriers exist that would preclude the movement of birds 
across the proposed boundary separating the two subspecies, and studies 
involving radio-tagged sage-grouse have documented movements back and 
forth across the proposed boundary (Crawford and Gregg 2001).
    In 1990, protein and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) studies were 
initiated to clarify the status of sage-grouse subspecies in Oregon. 
Preliminary results indicated no differentiation among birds collected 
from different areas (Drut 1994). However, because the sample size was 
small, these results were never published (Michael Pope, Oregon State 
University, pers. comm. with Oregon Field Office of FWS 2002). 
Recently, Benedict et al. (2003) collected 332 birds from 16 
populations in Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada to sequence a 
rapidly evolving portion of the mitochondrial DNA. They collected 
samples from both sides of the proposed boundary between the western 
and eastern subspecies. Their analysis found no genetic evidence to 
support the delineation of subspecies.
    We are unaware of any information documenting that either of the 
two putative subspecies exhibits any unique behavioral or ecological 
traits, other than those described for the Columbia Basin DPS due to 
its isolation resulting from habitat fragmentation and loss. (On May 7, 
2001 (66 FR 22984), we determined that listing of the Washington 
population of sage-grouse as a distinct population segment, termed the 
Columbia Basin DPS, was warranted but precluded by higher priority 
listing actions; the Columbia Basin DPS is currently a candidate for 
listing (67 FR 40657)).
    Based on the lack of distinct genetic differences between the two 
putative subspecies, lack of ecological or physical factors that might 
contribute to population isolation, and evidence that birds freely 
cross the supposed boundary zone between the putative subspecies, we 
continue to conclude that neither the eastern nor western sage-grouse 
is a valid subspecies of the greater sage-grouse.

Distinct Population Segment

    Because we no longer consider the eastern sage-grouse to be a valid 
subspecies, we must then consider whether the petitioned entity might 
constitute a valid Distinct Population Segment (DPS) under our DPS 
policy (61 FR 4722). Under our DPS policy, we use two elements to 
assess whether a vertebrate population may be recognized as a DPS: (1) 
A population segment's discreteness from the remainder of the species 
to which it belongs; and (2) the significance of the population segment 
to the species to which it belongs. If we determine that a population 
being considered for listing meets the discreteness and significance 
criteria, and thus may represent a DPS, we then consider the population 
segment's conservation status in relation to the Act's standards for 
listing (i.e., is the population segment, when treated as if it were a 
species, endangered or threatened?).
    Under our DPS policy, a population segment of a vertebrate species 
may be considered discrete if it satisfies either of the following two 
conditions. The first condition is whether the population segment `` * 
* * is markedly separated from other populations of the same taxon as a 
consequence of physical, physiological, ecological, or behavioral 
factors. Quantitative measures of genetic or morphological 
discontinuity may provide evidence of this separation.'' The second 
condition is whether the population segment is ``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'' (61 FR 4722; February 7, 1996).
    In our 90-day finding on the petition to list the western 
subspecies of the

[[Page 936]]

greater sage-grouse (68 FR 6500; February 7, 2003), we concluded that 
available information was not substantial to demonstrate that the 
western population of sage-grouse is discrete from the remainder of the 
taxon based on physical separation or isolation from eastern 
populations, or distinct differences in morphological, behavioral, or 
ecological traits. The current petition for the eastern subspecies does 
not provide any additional or new information regarding subspecies 
isolation. In addition, recent genetic studies found no evidence to 
support the delineation of subspecies (Benedict et al. 2003).
    Although the greater sage-grouse occurs in Canada, the petitioned 
entity is not ``delimited by international governmental boundaries.'' 
Therefore, the second condition related to discreteness does not apply 
in this situation.
    In summary, neither the information presented in the petition nor 
that available in Service files presents substantial scientific or 
commercial information to demonstrate that the eastern population of 
sage-grouse is discrete from the remainder of the taxon. Accordingly, 
we are unable to define a listable entity of the eastern sage-grouse 
within the greater sage-grouse taxon. Therefore, we did not address the 
second element for determining a DPS, which is the potential 
significance of the eastern sage-grouse population to the remainder of 
the taxon. Finally, since the eastern population of sage-grouse cannot 
be defined as a DPS at this time, we did not evaluate its status as 
endangered or threatened on the basis of either the Act's definitions 
of those terms or the factors in section 4(a) of the Act.


    The Service has reviewed the petition, literature cited in the 
petition, other pertinent literature, and information available in 
Service files. After reviewing the best scientific and commercial 
information available, the Service finds the petition does not present 
substantial information to indicate that the petitioned action may be 
warranted. This finding is based on the lack of evidence to support a 
separation of the greater sage-grouse into eastern and western 
subspecies, and our determination that the eastern population of the 
greater sage-grouse does not constitute a DPS.

References Cited

    A complete list of all references cited herein is available upon 
request from the Wyoming Field Office (see ADDRESSES).

    Authority: The authority for this action is the Endangered 
Species Act of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: January 2, 2004.
Matt Hogan,
Acting Director, Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 04-354 Filed 1-5-04; 9:43 am]