[Federal Register: February 7, 2003 (Volume 68, Number 26)]
[Page 6500-6504]
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 on 
a Petition To List the Western Sage Grouse

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 on a petition to list the western sage grouse 
(Centrocercus urophasianus phaios) 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, on the basis of our 
determination that there is insufficient evidence to indicate that the 
western population of sage grouse is a valid subspecies or 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 or 
threats to the western population of sage grouse. This information will 
help us monitor and encourage the conservation of this species.

DATES: The finding announced in this document was made on January 26, 
2003. You may submit new information

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concerning this species for our consideration at any time.

ADDRESSES: The complete file for this finding is available for 
inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours, at the U.S. 
Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, 2600 SE. 
98th Avenue, Suite 100, Portland, Oregon 97266. Submit new information 
or comments concerning this petition to the Service at the above 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Kemper M. McMaster, Field Supervisor, 
Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES section) (telephone 503/
231-6179; facsimile 503/231-6195).



    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, 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 our receipt of the petition, and publish 
the notice of the finding promptly in the Federal Register. Our 
standard for substantial information within the Code of Federal 
Regulations (CFR) 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 the finding is that substantial information was 
presented, we are required to promptly commence a review of the status 
of the involved species, if one has not already been initiated, under 
our internal candidate assessment process.
    We received a petition, dated January 24, 2002, from the Institute 
for Wildlife Protection requesting that the western sage grouse 
(Centrocercus urophasianus phaios) occurring from northern California, 
through Oregon and Washington, in addition to any western sage grouse 
that still occur in parts of Idaho, be listed under the Act. Although 
we published a 12-month finding for the Columbia Basin distinct 
population segment (DPS) of sage grouse in May 2001, the petitioner 
requested that we include this population in our review of the 
petition. The 12-month finding for the Columbia Basin DPS of sage 
grouse was that listing was warranted but precluded due to higher 
priority listing actions (66 FR 22984). That finding presented 
information describing genetic and ecological differences between sage 
grouse located in the Columbia Basin and the population of sage grouse 
in central and southern Oregon, as well as the significant gap in the 
range of the Washington population (66 FR 22984). The Columbia Basin 
DPS of sage grouse is presently a candidate for listing (67 FR 40657). 
Since our 12-month finding presented an in-depth review of this 
population of sage grouse, this review will only focus on the remaining 
portion of the petitioned sage grouse.
    The petitioner requested that the western sage grouse occurring in 
northern California, in addition to any western sage grouse that still 
occur in parts of Idaho, be listed under the Act. However, we note that 
the inclusion of California is incorrect according to Aldrich and 
Duvall (1955) and Aldrich (1963). Sage grouse in northern California 
and northwestern Nevada were reclassified as an intermediate form 
(Aldrich and Duvall 1955; Aldrich 1963). As for any western sage grouse 
in Idaho, Aldrich (1946) stated that it was possible that western sage 
grouse occurred in central-western Idaho. However, no specimens have 
ever been collected to verify the existence of western sage grouse in 
    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 the western sage grouse. The 
petitioner contends that the range of the western sage grouse and the 
number of individuals, have decreased by approximately half, and that 
the subspecies has become isolated into a series of fragments. In order 
to determine if substantial information is available to indicate that 
the petitioned action may be warranted, we have reviewed the subject 
petition, literature cited in the petition, information provided by 
recognized experts or agencies cited in the petition, and information 
otherwise available in Service files.
    This 90-day petition finding is made in accordance with a proposed 
settlement agreement which would require us to complete a finding by 
January 30, 2003 (Institute for Wildlife Protection and Dr. Steven G. 
Herman v. Norton et al. (CV02 1604L, W.D. WA)).
    The following information regarding the description and natural 
history of greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) (sage 
grouse) (American Ornithological Union (AOU) 2000) has been condensed 
from these sources: Aldrich 1963; Johnsgard 1973; Connelly et al. 1988; 
Connelly et al. 2000; Fischer et al. 1993; Drut 1994; Western States 
Sage Grouse Technical Committee 1996 and 1998; and Schroeder et al. 
    The sage grouse is 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 forming a ruff around the neck and upper 
belly. 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.). Throughout much of the year, adult sage 
grouse rely on sagebrush to provide roosting cover and food. During the 
winter, they depend almost exclusively on sagebrush for food. The type 
and condition of shrub steppe plant communities strongly affect habitat 
use by sage grouse populations. However, 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 population movements are generally less 
than 34 km (21 mi). Sage grouse are also capable of dispersing over 
areas of unsuitable habitat.
    During the spring breeding season, primarily during the morning 
hours just after dawn, male sage grouse gather together and perform 
courtship displays on areas called leks (areas where animals assemble 
and perform courtship displays). Areas of bare soil, short grass 
steppe, windswept ridges, exposed knolls, or other relatively open 
sites may serve as leks. Leks range in size from less than 0.4 hectare 
(ha) (1 acre (ac)) to over 40 ha (100 ac) and can host from several to 
hundreds of males. 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

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stable in size and location within the course of 1 year and between 2 
or more years. 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 and perform elaborate 
displays with their specialized plumage and vocalizations to attract 
females for mating.
    Females may travel up to 35 km (22 mi) after mating, and typically 
select nest sites under sagebrush cover, although other shrub or 
bunchgrass species are sometimes used. Nests are relatively simple and 
consist of scrapes on the ground. Clutch sizes range from 6 to 13 eggs. 
Nest success ranges from 10 to 63 percent and is relatively low 
compared to other prairie grouse species. 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; however, sage 
grouse up to 10 years of age have been recorded in the wild. The annual 
mortality rate for sage grouse is roughly 50 to 55 percent, which is 
relatively low compared to other prairie grouse species. Females 
generally have a higher survival rate than males, which accounts for a 
female-biased sex ratio in adult birds.
    Prior to European expansion into western North America, sage grouse 
were believed to occur in the States of Washington, Oregon, California, 
Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, North 
Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and the 
Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan 
(Schroeder et al. 1999). 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, sage grouse 
occur in southern Idaho, the northern two-thirds of Nevada, parts of 
Utah, most of Wyoming, southern and eastern Montana, and extreme 
western North and South Dakota. Sage grouse have been extirpated from 
Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and British Columbia 
(Schroeder et al. 1999).
    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. There may have been between 
roughly 1.6 million and 16 million sage grouse rangewide prior to 
European expansion across western North America (65 FR 51578). The 
Western States Sage Grouse Technical Committee (WSSGTC) (1999) 
estimated that there may have been about 1.1 million birds in 1800. 
Braun (1998) estimated that the 1998 rangewide spring population 
numbered about 157,000 sage grouse. More recent estimates put the 
number of sage grouse rangewide at between roughly 100,000 and 500,000 
birds (65 FR 51578). Sage grouse population levels may have declined 
from historic to recent times between 69 and 99 percent (65 FR 51578). 
WSSGTC (1999) estimates the decline between historic and present day to 
have been about 86 percent.
    Apparently, much of the overall decline in sage grouse populations 
occurred from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s (Hornaday 1916; Crawford 
1982; Drut 1994; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) 
1995; Braun 1998; Schroeder et al. 1999). Other declines in sage grouse 
populations apparently occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, and then again 
in the 1960s and 1970s (Connelly and Braun 1997).
    In Oregon, a 50 percent net loss in sage grouse distribution took 
place between about 1900 and the mid-1950s (Drut 1994). Since the 
1950s, sage grouse distribution in Oregon has undergone only minor 
changes (Drut 1994). Between 1941 and 1952, hundreds of birds from 
Harney and Malheur counties were transplanted to Crook, Sherman, Wasco, 
and other counties (Crawford 1982). These transplants were not 
successful, and it is unclear what effect a successful translocation of 
sage grouse from the eastern population into the western population 
might have had on the genetics of sage grouse in Oregon.
    Two subpopulations of sage grouse remain in Washington (WSGWG 
1998). One occurs primarily on private and State-owned lands in Douglas 
County; the other occurs at the Yakima Training Center, administered by 
the U.S. Army in Kittitas and Yakima counties. These two subpopulations 
are isolated from the Oregon population and nearly isolated from one 
another (65 FR 51578).
    Western 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 a subspecies existed in the 
western portion of the greater sage grouse range. The distribution of 
the western sage grouse 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). Later, 
the distribution 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 since been 
questioned (Johnsgard 1983; Johnsgard 2002; Benedict et al. in press).
    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., 2000, 2002). Therefore, the western and eastern subspecies of 
sage grouse are still recognized by the AOU. However, the Oregon 
Department of Fish and Wildlife and others do not agree with this 
subspecies designation (Drut 1994).
    R. Banks of the National Museum of Natural History (in litt., 1992) 
reviewed the same sage grouse specimens available to Aldrich in 1946 
and concluded that there is only a weak basis for the separation into 
two subspecies. Braun stated that the so-called western race of sage 
grouse in Oregon and Washington does not differ from sage grouse in 
California, northern Colorado, Wyoming, and other States (Clait E. 
Braun, Colorado Division of Wildlife, in litt. 1992 cited in Drut 
1994). Braun continued by stating that the inclusion of western sage 
grouse as a category 2 species/subspecies by the Service is without 
    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 (M. Pope, Oregon State 
University, pers. comm., 2002). Benedict et al. (in press) recently 
collected 332 birds from 16 populations in Washington, Oregon, 
California, and Nevada to sequence a rapidly evolving portion of the 
mitochondrial control region. They collected samples from

[[Page 6503]]

either side of the proposed boundary between the western and eastern 
subspecies, but found no genetic evidence to support the delineation of 
subspecies (Benedict et al. in press).
    The boundary between the western and eastern subspecies is 
generally considered to occur 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 
study has been published depicting a more precise separation between 
the two previously recognized subspecies. Although no study has 
specifically been conducted to show movement along this separation 
boundary, other studies involving radio-tagged sage grouse have 
documented movements back and forth across the proposed boundary. For 
example, Crawford and Gregg (2001) noted that two radio-tagged sage 
grouse hens captured on Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in 
south-central Oregon moved to the vicinity of Lone Grave Butte on the 
Beatys Butte study area southeast of the refuge. They also noted that a 
hen and week-old brood moved from Beatys Butte to the Catnip Reservoir 
area of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, a distance of over 
32 km (20 mi). By mid-summer, 25 percent of marked hens (6) still alive 
had moved south onto Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (Crawford and 
Gregg 2001). This small sample demonstrates movement of sage grouse 
across the boundary area separating the western and eastern populations 
of sage grouse.
    At this time, sage grouse experts disagree about whether the 
western sage grouse is a valid subspecies. When informed taxonomic 
opinion is not unanimous, we evaluate the available published and 
unpublished information to come to our own adequately documented 
conclusion regarding the validity of taxa. Although the AOU has not 
made a procedural change regarding the treatment of subspecies, the 
best available science tells us that there is no genetic distinction 
between western and eastern sage grouse. Therefore, on the basis of 
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 subspecies, we conclude 
that the western sage grouse is not a valid subspecies of the greater 
sage grouse. Because we no longer consider the western sage grouse a 
valid taxon, we must then consider whether the petitioned sage grouse 
populations might constitute a DPS.
    Under our DPS policy (61 FR 4722), we use three elements to assess 
whether a population under consideration for listing may be recognized 
as a DPS: (1) A population segment's discreteness from the remainder of 
the taxon; (2) the population segment's significance to the taxon to 
which it belongs; and (3) ``[t]he 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?).'' 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 it as either threatened or endangered may be 
    A population segment of a vertebrate species may be considered 
discrete if it satisfies either of the following conditions. The first 
condition is whether the species' population is markedly separated, or 
isolated, from other populations of the same taxon ``as a consequence 
of physical, physiological, ecological, or behavioral factors.'' When 
evaluating these four factors, ``[q]uantitative measures of genetic or 
morphological discontinuity may provide evidence of this separation.'' 
The second condition, which does not apply here, is whether the 
population segment 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.''
    In determining the discreteness, or isolation, of the petitioned 
sage grouse, one of the factors to consider is physical separation from 
the rest of the taxon. The petitioner did not provide substantial 
information to demonstrate, nor does information in our files indicate, 
that the western population of sage grouse are physically isolated from 
nearby eastern populations. Along the eastern boundary of the 
petitioned sage grouse, the landscape consists of various mountain 
ranges, intervening valleys, and canyons, and birds are able to move 
between these areas. No physical barriers exist that would preclude the 
movement of birds across this landscape and hypothetical boundary 
separating the petitioned and more easterly populations. Crawford and 
Gregg (2001), through their studies, have documented the movement of 
sage grouse across this boundary. Dispersing birds have been estimated 
to be able to disperse up to 160 km (100 mi) (WDFW 1995; Schroeder et 
al. 1999). The petitioner acknowledges in the petition that the ranges 
of western and eastern populations of sage grouse overlap in Oregon 
(Webb 2001).
    Other factors to consider with regard to discreteness or isolation 
of a population are genetic, morphological, and behavioral differences. 
As discussed above, there does not appear to be any genetic 
differentiation between sage grouse individuals found in western and 
eastern populations. Individual morphological variation, such as color, 
in this [sage] grouse, as in other species, is extensive (R. Banks, in 
litt., 1992). Banks (in litt., 1992) doubts that the color difference 
noted by Aldrich is sufficient to warrant the description or 
recognition of a subspecies, with the present concepts. He continues by 
stating that most taxonomists today would not make the decision to name 
a population on the basis of the minor color variation shown in the 
small sample available here. Even Aldrich (in litt., 1992 cited in Drut 
1994) states that the amount of morphological difference required to 
name a distinct population as a subspecies is arbitrary. The petitioner 
does not provide any information to document that the petitioned sage 
grouse exhibits any unique behavioral traits.
    In summary, to make a DPS determination, we examined physical, 
physiological, ecological, and behavioral factors. Since no 
international government boundaries of significance are involved, this 
condition for a finding of discreteness was not considered in reaching 
this determination. Neither the information presented in the petition 
nor that available in Service files presents substantial scientific or 
commercial information to demonstrate that the western population of 
sage grouse is discrete from the remainder of the taxon. Accordingly, 
we are unable to define a listable entity of the western population of 
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 western population of sage grouse to the 
remainder of the taxon. Finally, since the western 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.

Petition Finding

    We have reviewed the petition, literature cited in the petition, 

[[Page 6504]]

pertinent literature, and information available in Service files. After 
our review, we find the petition does not present substantial 
information to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted. We 
base this finding on a lack of evidence to support a separation of the 
greater sage grouse into eastern and western subspecies, and also on 
our determination that the western population of sage grouse does not 
constitute a DPS on the basis of the following: (a) insufficient 
information to determine whether the western population of sage grouse 
is geographically separated from other sage grouse throughout the range 
of the taxon; and (b) insufficient information to demonstrate that 
genetic, morphological, and behavioral aspects of the western 
population of sage grouse are unique.

References Cited

    A complete list of all references cited herein is available upon 
request from the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES 


    The primary author of this notice is Jeff Dillon, U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service, Oregon Fish and Wildlife 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 27, 2003.
Steve Williams,
Director, Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 03-3020 Filed 2-6-03; 8:45 am]