[Federal Register: April 21, 2004 (Volume 69, Number 77)]
[Proposed Rules]               
[Page 21484-21494]
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 for 
Petitions To List the Greater Sage-grouse as Threatened or Endangered

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 three petitions to list the greater sage-grouse 
(Centrocercus urophasianus) as threatened or endangered, under the 
Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We find that these 
petitions and additional information available in our files present 
substantial information indicating that listing the greater sage-grouse 
may be warranted. As a result of this finding, we are initiating a 
status review. We ask the public to submit to us any pertinent 
information concerning the status of or threats to this species.

DATES: The finding announced in this document was made on April 5, 
2004. You may submit new information concerning this species for our 
consideration by June 21, 2004.

ADDRESSES: Data, information, comments, or questions concerning this 
finding should be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4000 
Airport Parkway, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82001. The petitions, finding, and 
supporting information are available for public inspection, by 
appointment, during normal business hours, at the above address. Submit 
new information, materials, comments, or questions concerning this 
species to the Service at the above address.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Dr. Pat Deibert, 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 
    (Act) (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), requires that we make a finding on 
whether a

[[Page 21485]]

petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species presents substantial 
scientific or commercial information to indicate 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)). When a substantial finding is 
made, we are required to promptly begin a review of the status of the 
species, if one has not already been initiated.
    On July 2, 2002, we received a petition from Craig C. Dremann to 
list the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as endangered 
across its entire range. Mr. Dremann's 7-page petition summarizes 
several threats to the species' habitat, based on the author's review 
of the Oregon Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) management guidelines 
for the greater sage-grouse (Barett et al. 2000). A second petition 
requesting the same action was received from the Institute for Wildlife 
Protection on March 24, 2003 (cited as Webb 2002). On December 29, 
2003, we received a third petition from the American Lands Alliance and 
20 additional conservation organizations (American Lands Alliance et 
al.) to list the greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered 
rangewide. Both of these petitions describe multiple threats to the 
greater sage-grouse from habitat loss and degradation, overutilization, 
disease and predation, the lack of regulatory protection, human-related 
factors (e.g., pesticide use), and natural events (e.g., drought). They 
also provide an extensive discussion, citing scientific literature, of 
how the unique biological characteristics of the greater sage-grouse 
compound extrinsic threats affecting the species' habitat and genetic 
stability. These petitions are 553 and 218 pages, with an additional 
459 and 306 pages of literature cited, respectively. Because the 
petitions submitted by the Institute for Wildlife Protection and 
American Lands Alliance et al. were received after Mr. Dremann's 
petition, we consider those as providing supporting information for the 
original request.
    In addition to reviewing the three petitions, we have reviewed 
other pertinent information and scientific literature available in our 
files, as well as other information that has been provided to us, 
including detailed comments on the petitions (particularly on the 
American Lands Alliance et al. petition) submitted by the Petroleum 
Association of Wyoming (PAW).
    In addition to the petitions discussed above, we have previously 
addressed a number of other petitions related to subspecies and 
Distinct Population Segments (DPSs) of the greater sage-grouse. In a 
90-day finding on a petition submitted by the Institute for Wildlife 
Protection to list the western subspecies of the greater sage-grouse 
(C.u. phaios) as threatened or endangered (February 7, 2003; 68 FR 
6500), we concluded there was no scientific basis to recognize the 
eastern or western subspecies designations. Thus, we determined that 
the petition did not present substantial scientific or commercial 
information indicating that listing the western subspecies was 
warranted. For the same reason, on January 7, 2004, we published a 
negative 90-day finding for a subsequent petition from the same 
organization requesting that we list the eastern subspecies of the 
greater sage-grouse (C.u. urophasianus) (69 FR 933).
    On May 7, 2001, we published a 12-month petition finding which 
determined that listing the Columbia Basin DPS of the western sage-
grouse (now considered the greater sage-grouse) was warranted but 
precluded by higher priority listing actions (66 FR 22984). The 
Columbia Basin DPS of the greater sage-grouse is currently a candidate 
for listing (67 FR 40657). In a 90-day finding published December 26, 
2002 (67 FR 78811), we determined that a petition to emergency list the 
Mono Basin population of the greater sage-grouse did not present 
substantial information, because the petitioner failed to adequately 
identify the DPS or provide sufficient information to document that 
continued existence of the species was threatened in the Mono Basin of 
California and Nevada.
    A closely related species, the Gunnison sage-grouse (C. minimus), 
is currently on our candidate list (67 FR 40657). Because it is a 
separate species (Young et al. 2000), the Gunnison sage-grouse is not 
included in this finding.
    We find the petitions by Craig C. Dremann, the Institute for 
Wildlife and the American Lands Alliance present substantial 
information indicating that listing the greater sage-grouse may be 
warranted. In making this finding we rely on information provided by 
the petitioners and evaluate that information in accordance with 50 CFR 
424.14(b). The contents of this finding summarize that information 
included in the petition and which was available to us at the time of 
the petition review. Our review for the purposes of a so-called ``90-
day'' finding under section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Act and section 424.14(b) 
of our regulations is limited to a determination of whether the 
information in the petition meets the ``substantial information'' 
threshold. We do not conduct additional research at this point, nor do 
we subject the petition to rigorous critical review. Rather, as the Act 
and regulations contemplate, at the 90-day finding, we accept the 
petitioner's sources and characterizations of the information unless we 
have specific information to the contrary. Our finding is that the 
petition states a reasonable case for listing on its face. Thus, in 
this finding, we express no view as to the ultimate issue of whether 
the species should be listed. We can come to a conclusion on that issue 
only after a more thorough review of the species' status. In that 
review, which will take approximately nine more months, we will perform 
a rigorous critical analysis of the best available scientific 
information, not just the information in the petition. We will ensure 
that the data used to make our determination as to the status of the 
species is consistent with the Endangered Species Act and the 
Information Quality Act. We ask the public to submit to us any 
pertinent information concerning the status of or threats to this 

Biology and Distribution

    The following information regarding the description and natural 
history of the greater sage-grouse (sage-grouse) (American 
Ornithologists' 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 and 
Columbia Sharp-Tailed Grouse Technical Committee (WSSCSTGTC) 1996 and 
1998; and Schroeder et al. 1999. Specific references are cited for data 
of particular relevance to this finding.
    The sage-grouse is the largest North American grouse species. Adult 
males range in length 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 length 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

[[Page 21486]]

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 (Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis), 
mountain big sagebrush (A. t. vaseyana), and basin big sagebrush (A. t. 
tridentata)). Other sagebrush species, such as low sagebrush (A. 
arbuscula), black sagebrush (A. nova), fringed sagebrush (A. frigida) 
and silver sagebrush (A. cana) are also used. 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 
affect habitat use by sage-grouse populations (Connelly et al. 2000; 
Johnsgard 2002). 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 individual movements are generally less than 34 km (21 
mi) (Schroeder et al. 1999). Sage-grouse also are capable of dispersing 
over areas of unsuitable habitat (Connelly et al. 1988). Because of the 
dependence of sage-grouse on sagebrush, they are rarely found outside 
of this habitat type (typically limited to periods of migration).
    Sage-grouse consume a wide variety of forb (any herbaceous plant 
that is not a grass) species from spring to early fall (Schroeder et 
al. 1999). 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 (Schroeder et al. 1999). Winter habitat use 
varies based upon snow accumulations and elevation gradients (Connelly 
et al. 2000). Sagebrush constitutes 100 percent of the sage-grouse 
winter diet as it is typically the only food resource available. 
Differences in the species of sagebrush consumed in the winter may be 
tied to availability, as well as preference for greater protein levels 
and lower levels of volatile oils (Connelly et al. 2000).
    During the spring breeding season, primarily during the morning 
hours just after dawn, 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 are often surrounded by 
denser shrub-steppe cover. Leks can be formed opportunistically at 
sites within or adjacent to nesting habitat (Connelly et al. 2000), and 
therefore are not a limiting factor for sage-grouse. They 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 
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 and perform 
elaborate displays with their specialized plumage and vocalizations to 
attract females for mating. A relatively small number of dominant males 
accounts for the majority of breeding on a given lek (Schroeder et al. 
    Females may travel more than 20 km (12.5 mi) after mating (Connelly 
et al. 2000). They typically select nest sites under sagebrush cover, 
although other shrub or bunchgrass species are sometimes used. Nests 
are relatively simple, consisting of scrapes on the ground that are 
sometimes lined with feathers and vegetation. Clutch size ranges from 6 
to 13 eggs. Nest success ranges from 12 to 86 percent and is relatively 
low compared to other prairie grouse species (Connelly et al. 2000). 
Shrub canopy and grass cover provide concealment for sage-grouse nests 
and young, and are critical for reproductive success. 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 (Schroeder et al. 1999; Schroeder and Baydack 2001).
    Sage-grouse typically live between 1 and 4 years, but 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 16 States and 3 Canadian provinces--
Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, 
Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, 
New Mexico, Arizona, 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. At present, 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 Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, 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.
    In a Federal Register notice dated August 24, 2000, we stated that, 
prior to European expansion across the continent, there may have been 
between 1.6 and 16 million sage-grouse in western North America (65 FR 
51578). These estimates were calculated by multiplying sage-grouse 
density estimates for a range of habitats considered of low to high 
quality (assuming 1 grouse per 1 square kilometer (km\2\) (0.4 square 
mile (mi\2\)) as an approximate lower density limit, and 10 grouse per 
km\2\ (0.4 mi\2\) as an approximate upper density limit (Michael 
Schroeder, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, pers. comm. 
1999, cited in 65 FR 51578)) by the most recent estimate of historic 
sage grouse distribution (1.6 million km\2\ (0.64 million mi\2\).
    The WSSCSTGTC (1999) estimated that there may have been 1.1 million 
birds in 1800. Braun (1998) estimated that the 1998 rangewide spring 
population numbered about 157,000 sage-grouse, while we estimated the 
rangewide population of sage-grouse at roughly between 100,000 and 
500,000 birds in 2000 (65 FR 51578; August 24, 2000). Using our 
population estimates in the August 24, 2000, Federal Register notice, 
sage-grouse population numbers may have declined between 69 and 99 
percent from historic to recent times (65 FR 51578). The WSSCSTGTC 
(1999) estimated the decline between historic and present day to have 
been about 86 percent.
    Apparently, much of the overall decline in sage-grouse abundance 
occurred from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s (Hornaday 1916; Crawford 
1982; Drut 1994; Washington Department of

[[Page 21487]]

Fish and Wildlife 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). Sage-grouse populations in Colorado have declined from 45 to 82 
percent since 1980. Populations in Wyoming and Washington have declined 
17 and 47 percent, respectively, from pre-1985 to post-1985 (Braun 
1998). Sage-grouse numbers in South Dakota declined from approximately 
25,000 birds in the 1950's to 5,000 in 1992 (Drut 1994). In Utah, the 
decline is estimated at 50 percent since settlement (Drut 1994). The 
State of Nevada has reported declining sage-grouse populations since 
1970 (Neel 2001). The aforementioned population trends are based on lek 
counts. Braun (1998) reports that the number of males per lek, an 
indicator of population trend, has continuously declined across the 
species' range since the early 1950s.

Taxonomic Issues

    In 1946, Aldrich described a subspecies of greater sage-grouse in 
the northwestern portion of the species' range based on slight color 
differences in the plumage of 11 museum specimens. In 1957, the AOU 
recognized a subspecies division within the sage-grouse taxon. However, 
since that time 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 toward that goal (Richard C. 
Banks, National Museum of Natural History, pers. comm. with Oregon 
Field Office of the Service 2000, 2002). Therefore, the western and 
eastern subspecies of sage grouse are still recognized by the AOU, 
based on its 1957 consideration of the taxon.
    The validity of the taxonomic separation has been questioned 
(Johnsgard 1983; Johnsgard 2002; Benedict et al. 2003). In our 90-day 
petition findings for the western subspecies of the greater sage-grouse 
(68 FR 6500; February 7, 2003) and eastern subspecies of the greater 
sage-grouse (69 FR 933; January 7, 2004), we concluded there was no 
basis to recognize these subspecies due to the lack of distinct genetic 
differences between the two, the lack of ecological or physical factors 
that might indicate differentiation between the populations, and 
evidence that birds freely cross the supposed boundary between the 
subspecies. We continue to believe that our earlier conclusion 
regarding lack of subspecies differences is correct.

Conservation Status

    Pursuant to section 4(a) of the Act, we may list a species, 
subspecies, or DPS of vertebrate taxa on the basis of any of the 
following five factors--(A) destruction, modification, or curtailment 
of habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, 
scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) 
inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and (E) other manmade or 
natural factors affecting its continued existence. The rangewide 
petition submitted by Mr. Dremann asserts that greater sage-grouse are 
subject to threats under Factor A. The other petitions assert that 
greater sage-grouse are subject to threats under all listing factors, 
but primarily under Factor A. We used information provided by the 
petitioners and available in our files to address these factors as 
    Under Factor A, the petitioners assert that greater sage-grouse 
have been impacted by the permanent conversion of sagebrush habitats to 
agricultural lands, and provide both rangewide and site-specific 
examples which have been published in the scientific literature.
    Sagebrush once covered roughly 63 million ha (156 million ac) in 
western North America (West 1996; Miller and Eddleman 2001, cited in 
Knick et al. 2003). In our review of the scientific literature, we 
found that western rangelands were converted to agricultural lands on a 
large scale under the series of Homestead Acts in the 1800s (Braun 
1998). According to Schroeder et al. (1999), millions of hectares of 
native sagebrush habitat have been cultivated for the production of 
potatoes, wheat, and other crops. In some States, more than 70 percent 
of sagebrush shrub-steppe habitats have been converted to agricultural 
crops (Braun 1998). This impact has been especially apparent in the 
Columbia Basin of the Northwest and the Snake River Plain of Idaho. 
Dobler (1994) estimated that approximately 60 percent of the original 
shrub-steppe habitat in Washington has been converted to primarily 
agricultural uses. Hironaka et al. (1983, cited in Knick et al. 2003) 
estimated that 99 percent of basin big sagebrush (A. t. tridentata) 
habitat in the Snake River Plain has been converted to cropland.
    Development of irrigation projects to support agricultural 
production also has resulted in additional sage-grouse habitat loss 
(Braun 1998). During the mid-1900s, a number of hydroelectric dams were 
developed on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Washington and Oregon. 
More than 400 dams were constructed on the Columbia River system alone. 
The irrigation projects formed by these reservoirs converted native 
shrub-steppe habitat to irrigated croplands adjacent to the rivers. The 
projects precipitated conversion of large expanses of upland shrub-
steppe habitat in the Columbia Basin for irrigated agriculture (August 
24, 2000; 65 FR 51578). This conversion has resulted in the loss of 60 
percent of the original 10.4 millon acres of shrub-steppe habitats 
present prior to European settlement in this area (Dobler 1994). The 
creation of these reservoirs also inundated hundreds of kilometers of 
riparian habitats used by sage-grouse broods (Braun 1998). Shrub-steppe 
habitat continues to be converted for both dryland and irrigated crop 
production, albeit at much-reduced levels (65 FR 51578; Braun 1998). 
However, the Bureau of Reclamation retains options for further 
development of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project in central 
Washington (65 FR 51578).
    All three petitions identified sagebrush conversion resulting from 
both chemical (herbicide) and mechanical treatments (shredding, roller 
chopping, hand slashing, bulldozing, beating, chaining, root plowing, 
and disk plowing) as a negative impact to greater sage-grouse habitat. 
The petitions quantify some of this conversion and discuss the 
resulting impacts to greater sage-grouse populations based on 
information provided in the scientific literature. Webb (2002) and 
American Lands Alliance et al. also extensively explore the cumulative 
effects on the greater sage-grouse resulting from habitat conversion 
using these methods.
    Large expanses of sagebrush have been removed and reseeded with 
non-native grasses to increase forage production (Shane et al. 1983, 
cited in Knick et al. 2003). In addition, thinning to reduce sagebrush 
density has long been practiced and continues today (Wamboldt et al. 
2002, cited in Knick et al. 2003). Braun (1998) concludes that since 
European settlement of western North America, no sagebrush habitats 
used by greater sage-grouse have escaped these types of treatments.
    Mechanical treatments, if carefully designed and executed, can be 
beneficial to sage-grouse by improving herbaceous cover, forb 
production, and resprouting of sagebrush (Braun 1998). However, adverse 
effects also have been documented (Connelly et al. 2000). In Montana, 
the number of breeding males

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declined by 73 percent after 16 percent of the habitat was plowed 
(Connelly et al. 2000). Mechanical treatments in blocks greater than 
100 ha (247 ac), or of any size reseeded with exotic grasses, degrade 
sage-grouse habitat by altering the structure and composition of the 
vegetative community (Braun 1998). Connelly et al. (2000) recommend 
managing for 15-25 percent of sagebrush canopy cover to maintain 
breeding habitat. Removal of greater than 40 percent of breeding 
habitat can result in the loss of the breeding population.
    Greater sage-grouse response to herbicide treatments depends on the 
extent to which forbs and sagebrush are killed. Chemical control of 
sagebrush has resulted in major declines of sage-grouse breeding 
populations through the loss of live sagebrush cover (Connelly et al. 
2000). Herbicide treatment also can result in sage-grouse emigration 
from affected areas (Connelly et al. 2000), and has been documented to 
reduce the brood carrying capacity of an area in Idaho (Klebenow 1970). 
While the total size of herbicide-treated areas is unknown, Braun 
(1998) estimates it exceeds 20 to 25 percent of the remaining 
sagebrush-dominated rangelands. Small treatments interspersed with 
nontreated sagebrush habitats appear to be neutral in their effects on 
sage-grouse. However, all large block treatments greater than 200 ha 
(494 ac) negatively affect sage-grouse (Braun 1998). Schroeder et al. 
(1999) and Braun (1998) estimated that millions of hectares within 
current sage-grouse habitat have been treated both mechanically and 
chemically to remove sagebrush since the early 1960s.
    The petitions from the Institute for Wildlife Protection and 
American Lands Alliance et al. identify loss of habitat from mining as 
a significant impact to the greater sage-grouse. In addition to the 
direct loss of habitat resulting from strip mining, these petitions 
cite scientific literature regarding the difficulty of re-establishing 
sagebrush (Lovich and Bainbridge 1999, Saab and Rich 1997, and 
Rotenberry 1998, as cited in Webb 2002).
    Development of mines and energy resources within the distribution 
of the sage-grouse began prior to 1900 (Robbins and Ward 1994, cited in 
Braun 1998). Coal, gold, and uranium mining has impacted sage-grouse 
habitats throughout the West (Braun 1998). Immediate impacts to the 
greater sage-grouse associated with mining include direct habitat loss 
from mining, especially open pit mining, and construction of associated 
facilities, roads, and powerlines (Braun 1998; Connelly et al. 2000). 
For example in Wyoming and Montana there is an estimated 38,833 ha 
(96,000 acres) of disturbed federal and nonfederal surface associated 
with existing coal mining operations. Over the next ten years, 
approximately 20,243 ha (50,000 acres) are estimated to be disturbed 
for coal mining activities. Of that, 14,170 ha (35,000 acres) should be 
reclaimed within the same time-period, resulting in a net annual 
disturbance of 607 ha (1,500 acres) (Kermit Witherbee, Bureau of Land 
Management, pers. commun.). However, long-term functional habitat 
recovery would require an extended period of time (Bureau of Land 
Management 2003), and population re-establishment may require at least 
20 to 30 years (Braun 1998). Sage-grouse have been documented to return 
to some reclaimed mining areas, but there is no evidence that 
population levels attain their previous size (Braun 1998).
    Proposed coal-bed methane development in the Powder River Basin of 
Wyoming is expected to result in the loss of 21,711 ha (53,626 ac) of 
sagebrush shrublands by 2011 (Bureau of Land Management 2003). Current 
sage-grouse habitat loss in the basin from coal-bed methane is 
estimated at 2,024 (5,000 ac) (Braun et al. 2002). Although reclamation 
of short-term disturbances will be concurrent with project development, 
``sage-grouse habitats would not be restored to pre-disturbance 
conditions for an extended period because of the time need to develop 
sagebrush stands with characteristics that are preferred by sage-
grouse.'' (Bureau of Land Management 2003a). Disturbance to other sage-
grouse habitats, such as late summer/brood-rearing areas, was not 
quantified in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for this 
project, but ``disturbance would occur to all other habitat types, 
including nesting, brood rearing, and wintering areas that are located 
more than 0.25 miles from lek sites'' (Bureau of Land Management 
2003a). The Bureau has proposed avoiding leks during the breeding 
season, minimizing noise from compressors, and locating powerlines 0.5 
mi from breeding and nesting areas (Bureau of Land Management 2003a). 
Within the entire Powder River Basin, over 80 percent of the surface 
ownership where coal-bed methane development is occurring is private, 
where mitigation is not required (Braun et al. 2002).
    All petitioners identified urban/suburban development as negatively 
impacting greater sage-grouse habitats. They support their concerns by 
identifying documented habitat losses from urban development in several 
states (Braun 1998 and Brigham 1995, as cited in Webb 2002), as well as 
information presented in the Gunnison sage-grouse management plans. The 
petitioners also discuss interrelated effects of urban/suburban 
development, such as construction of necessary infrastructure (roads, 
powerlines, and pipelines) and predation threats from the introduction 
of domestic pets.
    Historic destruction of sage-grouse habitats for urban development 
undoubtedly occurred (Braun 1998). More recent urban expansion into 
rural subdivisions is also resulting in both direct habitat loss and 
conversion, as well as avoidance of suitable habitats by sage-grouse 
around these areas due to the presence of humans and pets (Braun 1998; 
Connelly et al. 2000). In some Colorado counties, up to 50 percent of 
sage-grouse habitat is under rural subdivision development, and it is 
estimated that 3 to 5 percent of all sage-grouse historic habitat in 
Colorado has been developed into urban areas (Braun 1998). We are 
unaware of similar estimates for other States within the range of the 
greater sage-grouse.
    In addition to habitat loss from conversion to agriculture, 
chemical and mechanical treatments, mining development, and urban/
suburban development, sagebrush habitat losses also are occurring as a 
result of the apparent interaction of natural and anthropogenic 
factors. According to an article in the Autumn 2003 issue of Utah 
Division of Wildlife Resource's ``Wildlife Review,'' upwards of 400,000 
acres (162,000 ha) of dead or dying Wyoming big sagebrush had been 
documented by State biologists by the end of June 2003 (Fairchild 
2003). The species of sagebrush affected provides important food and 
cover to sagebrush obligate species, including greater sage-grouse. 
Reasons for the die-off are not entirely clear, but appear to be 
related to drought, fire suppression, and livestock and big game 
    All petitioners identify livestock grazing as one of the primary 
factors that has degraded greater sage-grouse habitats. The petitions 
discuss not only the direct impacts of livestock grazing on forage 
removal and sagebrush trampling (Patterson 1957, Yocom 1956, Dobkin 
1995, Autenrieth et al. 1997, Klebenow 1982, Braun 1998, and Braun 
2001, as cited in Webb 2002), but they also provide extensive reviews 
of associated factors, such as habitat degradation from livestock 
concentrations around water developments (Thomas et al. 1979 and Braun 
1998, as cited in Webb 2002), habitat fragmentation from fences (Call

[[Page 21489]]

and Maser 1985, Braun 1998 and Wilkinson 2001, as cited in Webb 2002), 
rangeland treatments to increase forage (Drut 1994, Rogers 1965, 
Klebenow 1970, Martin 1970, Pyrah 1970, 1971, Wallestad 1971, 1975 and 
Braun et al. 1977, as cited in Webb 2002), invasion of exotic 
vegetative species (Hoffman 1991, Drut 1994 and Fleischner 1994, as 
cited in Webb 2002), and changes in soil characteristics, particularly 
the soil crust (Mack and Thompson 1982 and Quigley and Arbelbide 1997, 
as cited in Dremann 2002; St. Clair et al. 1993, as cited in Webb 
    Due to the absence of habitat overlap, it is unlikely that sage-
grouse evolved with intensive grazing by wild herbivores, such as bison 
(Connelly et al. 2000). While little experimental evidence directly 
links grazing management to sage-grouse population trends (Braun 1998), 
the reduction of grass heights in nesting and brood-rearing areas 
negatively affects nesting success by reducing cover necessary for 
predator avoidance (Gregg et al. 1994; DeLong et al. 1995; Connelly et 
al. 2000). In addition, livestock consumption of forbs may reduce food 
availability for sage-grouse (see discussion under Factor E). This is 
particularly important for pre-laying hens, as forbs provide calcium, 
phosphorus, and protein. A hen's nutritional condition affects nest 
initiation rate, clutch size, and subsequent reproductive success 
(Connelly et al. 2000). Livestock grazing also may result in trampling 
mortality of seedling sagebrush (Connelly et al. 2000). This 
information suggests that grazing by livestock could reduce breeding 
habitat, subsequently affecting sage-grouse populations negatively 
(Beck and Mitchell 2000). However, additional replication studies are 
necessary to determine the effect of grazing management on sage-grouse 
nesting success (Beck and Mitchell 2000). Exclosure studies have 
demonstrated that domestic livestock grazing also reduces water 
infiltration rates and cover of herbaceous plants and litter, as well 
as compacting soils and increasing soil erosion (Braun 1998). This 
results in a change in proportion of shrub, grass, and forbs components 
in the affected area, and an increased invasion of exotic vegetative 
species that do not provide suitable habitat for sage-grouse (Miller 
and Eddleman 2000). Development of springs and other water sources to 
support livestock in upland shrub-steppe habitats can artificially 
concentrate domestic and wild ungulates in important sage-grouse 
habitats, thereby exacerbating grazing impacts in those areas.
    Excessive grazing by wild horses has been identified by all 
petitioners as contributing to a decline in sage-grouse habitat. We are 
unaware of any studies that specifically address the impact of wild 
horses on sagebrush and sage-grouse. However, we believe that some 
impacts from wild horse grazing may be similar to the nature of impacts 
from domestic livestock in sagebrush habitats.
    Fire often has been used as a management tool to reduce sagebrush 
canopy cover (Connelly et al. 2000) for many reasons, including 
increasing forage for the benefit of domestic livestock and wild 
ungulates. Our knowledge of sage-grouse response to fire is imperfect, 
but current information indicates that the species' response to fire 
varies depending on a variety of factors. Some studies suggest fire 
increases forbs and other foods important to sage-grouse (Braun 1998); 
others show food resources do not change between burned and unburned 
areas (Connelly et al. 2000), but that sage-grouse populations decline 
in response to loss of habitat (Connelly et al. 2000). A clear positive 
response of greater sage-grouse to fire has not been demonstrated 
(Braun 1998). Several subspecies of ``big'' sagebrush (Artemisia 
tridentata tridentata, A.t. vaseyana, and A.t. wyomingensis), which 
provide important sage-grouse habitat, are killed by fire and do not 
re-sprout after burning (Wrobleski and Kauffman 2003). This suggests 
that these sagebrush subspecies evolved in an environment where 
wildfire was infrequent (interval of 30 to 50 years) and patchy in 
distribution (Braun 1998). Therefore, frequent prescribed fires in 
these habitats may be detrimental to sage-grouse. The effect of fire on 
greater sage-grouse habitats in montane sagebrush communities is not 
clear (Connelly et al. 2000). Conversely, long fire intervals and fire 
suppression can result in increased dominance of woody species, such as 
western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) (Wrobleski and Kauffman 2003), 
resulting in a near total loss of shrubs and sage-grouse habitat 
(Miller and Eddleman 2000).
    Wildfires have destroyed extensive areas of sagebrush habitat in 
recent years. For example, 30 to 40 percent of the sage-grouse habitat 
in southern Idaho was lost in a 5-year period (1997-2001) due to range 
fires, according to S. Sather-Blair, a wildlife biologist for the BLM 
in Idaho (quoted in Healy 2001). The largest contiguous patch of 
sagebrush habitat in southern Idaho occupies approximately 700,000 
acres, according to M. Pellant, a rangeland ecologist with the Idaho 
BLM (quoted in Healy 2001). Of that total area, about 500,000 acres 
burned in the years 1999-2001; half of the acres that burned had 
already been affected by previous fires. In Nevada in 2000, more than 
660,000 acres burned statewide (NDOW Hunting Area and Unit 2000 Fire 
Report). Many of the fires burned in habitat that was in fairly good 
condition, and which supported good numbers of sage-grouse (NDOW 
Hunting Area and Unit 2000 Fire Report).
    Frequent fires with short intervals within sagebrush habitats favor 
invasion of cheatgrass (Bromus tectrorum), an exotic species that is 
unsuitable as sage-grouse habitat (Schroeder et al. 1999). Large areas 
of habitat in the western distribution of the greater sage-grouse have 
already been converted to cheatgrass (Connelly et al. 2000). Recovery 
of an area to sagebrush after cheatgrass becomes established is 
extremely difficult. The loss of habitat due to cheatgrass 
establishment results in the loss of sage-grouse populations (Connelly 
et al. 2000). Conversion to cheatgrass also reduces wildfire intervals 
in sagebrush ecosystems from 30 to 5 years (Pellant 1996). These 
shortened fire intervals further exacerbate the effects of fire in 
remaining sage-grouse habitats. Conversion of sagebrush vegetation 
communities to exotic species, such as Russian thistle (Salsola spp.), 
halogeton (Halogeton glomeratus), and medusahead (Taeniatherum 
asperum), also has resulted in sage-grouse habitat loss (Miller and 
Eddleman 2000).
    Petitions from the Institute for Wildlife Protection and American 
Lands Alliance et al. assert that military activities negatively affect 
sage-grouse habitats. These petitions primarily refer to documented 
negative effects to sage-grouse from activities on the Yakima Training 
Center in eastern Washington, as well as providing general information 
regarding impacts of track vehicles on vegetation and soils.
    Military facilities are found throughout the range of the greater 
sage-grouse. The impact of military activities at these facilities on 
local sage-grouse populations vary from direct mortality to habitat 
degradation and loss. In the fall of 1995, the U.S. Army conducted its 
first large-scale training exercise at the 800 square km (313 square 
mi) Yakima Training Center in Washington State. Analysis of the impacts 
from this exercise indicated that over 9 percent of the sagebrush 
plants within sage-grouse protection areas experienced major structural 
damage (Cadwell et al. 1996). In addition, modeling exercises

[[Page 21490]]

indicated that sagebrush cover would decline due to similar training 
scenarios if conducted on a biannual basis (Cadwell et al. 1996). 
Military training activities provide multiple ignition sources, thereby 
increasing the potential for fire within suitable sage-grouse habitat 
at military facilities. In 1996, over 25,000 ha (60,000 ac) of shrub-
steppe habitat was burned as a result of training activities at the 
Yakima Training Center (65 FR 51578), and other large range fires have 
occurred at the installation since. The Yakima Training Center has 
developed a management plan for sage-grouse habitat on the facility (65 
FR 51578). While military operations may significantly affect local 
sage-grouse populations, particularly where populations are isolated, 
there are few facilities that overlap suitable sage-grouse habitats. We 
could find no scientific information to support the petitioners' 
contention that military operations are a limiting factor on the 
greater sage-grouse populations range-wide.
    The petitions from the Institute for Wildlife Protection and 
American Lands Alliance et al. assert that habitat fragmentation from 
mining and energy development, including windpower, negatively impacts 
the greater sage-grouse. In addition to the direct habitat loss 
previously mentioned, associated facilities, roads, and powerlines, as 
well as noise and increased human activities (see discussion under 
Factor E) associated with mining and energy development, can fragment 
sage-grouse habitats (Braun 1998; Connelly et al. 2000). More chronic 
impacts are less clear. Lek abandonment as a result of oil and gas 
development has been observed in Alberta (Connelly et al. 2000), and, 
in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, leks within 0.4 km (0.25 mi) of a 
coal-bed methane well have significantly fewer males compared to less 
disturbed leks (Braun et al. 2002). The network of roads, trails, and 
powerlines associated with wells and compressor stations decreases the 
suitability and availability of sage-grouse habitat, and fragments 
remaining habitats (Aldridge and Brigham 2003). Human activities along 
these corridors can disrupt breeding activities and negatively affect 
survival (Aldridge and Brigham 2003). Female sage-grouse captured on 
leks near oil and gas development in Wyoming had lower nest-initiation 
rates, longer movements to nest sites, and different nesting habitats 
than hens captured on undisturbed sites (Lyon 2000; Lyon and Anderson 
2003). Lower nest-initiation rates can result in lower sage-grouse 
productivity in these areas (Lyon and Anderson 2003). Activities which 
remove live sagebrush and reduce patch size negatively affect all 
sagebrush obligates (Braun et al. 2002).
    In our review of available information, we found that sage-grouse 
habitats also are fragmented by fences, powerlines, roads, and other 
facilities associated with grazing, energy development, urban/suburban 
development, recreation, and the general development of western 
rangelands. Fences, powerlines and roads also are a direct mortality 
source for the greater sage-grouse (see discussion under Factor E).
    Fences constructed for property boundary delineation and livestock 
management provide perching locations for raptors and travel corridors 
for mammalian predators, thereby increasing greater sage-grouse 
predation (Braun 1998; Connelly et al. 2000). Greater sage-grouse 
avoidance of habitat adjacent to fences, presumably to minimize the 
risk of predation, effectively results in habitat fragmentation even if 
the actual habitat is not removed (Braun 1998). Over 51,000 km (31,690 
mi) of fences were constructed on BLM lands supporting sage-grouse 
populations between 1962 and 1997 (Connelly et al. 2000). Fences also 
provide a collision hazard, resulting in injury and death (Call and 
Maser 1985).
    As with fences, powerlines provide perches for raptors (Connelly et 
al. 2000; Vander Haegen et al. 2002, cited in Knick et al. 2003), 
thereby resulting in sage-grouse avoidance of powerline corridors 
(Braun 1998). Approximately 9,656 km (6,000 mi) of powerlines have been 
constructed in sage-grouse habitat to support coal-bed methane 
production in Wyoming's Powder River Basin within the past few years. 
Leks within 0.4 km (0.25 mi) of those lines have significantly lower 
growth rates than leks further from these lines, presumably as the 
result of increased raptor predation (Braun et al. 2002). The presence 
of powerlines also contributes to habitat fragmentation, as greater 
sage-grouse typically will not use areas immediately adjacent to 
powerlines, even if habitat is suitable (Braun 1998).
    Roads result in habitat loss and fragmentation, although the amount 
of habitat lost is unknown (Braun 1998). Roads also provide corridors 
for invasion of exotic vegetative species and predators. Lyon (2000) 
found that successful sage-grouse hens nested farther (mean distance = 
1,138 m) from the nearest road than did unsuccessful hens (mean 
distance = 268 m) on Pinedale Mesa near Pinedale, Wyoming.
    In summary, sagebrush once covered approximately 63 million ha (156 
million ac) in western North America. Almost none of the remaining 
habitats are unaltered (Braun 1998; Knick et al. 2003). Approximately 
one-half of the original area occupied by sage-grouse is no longer 
capable of supporting sage-grouse on a year-round basis (Braun 1998). 
Habitat alteration, through loss and degradation, has been identified 
as the primary explanation for the rangewide reduction in the 
distribution and population size of the greater sage-grouse (Schroeder 
et al. 1999).
    Based on the foregoing discussion, we believe that substantial 
information is available indicating that previous and ongoing habitat 
loss, degradation, and fragmentation within the remaining habitats are 
factors that may threaten the continued existence of the greater sage-
    Under Factor B, the Institute for Wildlife Protection and American 
Lands Alliance et al. cite hunting as a threat to the greater sage-
grouse in the contiguous United States. The petitions discuss historic 
losses of sage-grouse from overhunting, synergistic effects of hunting 
and habitat degradation, hunting as additive mortality, losses from 
poaching and incidental take, failure of the States to quantify hunting 
mortality from falconry seasons, the influence of hunting on extinction 
risks for small populations, and the effects of nonconsumptive 
activities (bird watching).
    In the early 1900s, Hornaday (1916) cautioned that sage-grouse and 
other grouse species would face extinction if hunting practices were 
not changed. Sage-grouse hunting at that time was unregulated and 
market hunting, poaching, and overharvesting reduced historic sage-
grouse populations (Hornaday 1916; Girard 1937; Schroeder et al. 1999). 
The historical impacts of hunting on the greater sage-grouse may have 
been exacerbated by impacts from human expansion into sagebrush-steppe 
habitats (Girard 1937).
    Greater sage-grouse are currently hunted in 10 of the 11 States 
where they occur (Bohne in litt. 2003) and hunting is regulated by 
State wildlife agencies. Most State agencies base their hunting 
regulations on local population information and peer-reviewed 
scientific literature regarding the impacts of hunting on greater sage-
grouse (Bohne in litt. 2003). Hunting seasons are reviewed annually, 
and most States implement adaptive harvest management based on harvest 
and population data. Hunting may be an additive mortality if brood hens 
and young birds sustain the highest hunting

[[Page 21491]]

mortality within a population (Braun 1998; Johnson and Braun 1999). 
Hunting seasons that are managed to evenly distribute mortality across 
all age and sex classes are less likely to negatively affect subsequent 
breeding populations (Braun 1998). Except for Montana, all States with 
hunting seasons have changed season dates and limits to more evenly 
distribute hunting mortality across the entire population structure. 
Connelly et al. (2000) state that most greater sage-grouse populations 
can sustain hunting if the seasons are carefully regulated. No hunting 
is permitted in Canada.
    Connelly et al. (2000) recommend restricting the number of lek 
locations provided to the public for viewing to minimize disturbance to 
grouse during the breeding season. Negative impacts to greater sage-
grouse from nonconsumptive uses during other seasons have not been 
identified by the scientific community. Similarly, mortality, either 
direct or indirect, resulting from scientific research on the greater 
sage-grouse has not been identified as a limiting factor for this 
    Based on the foregoing discussion, we do not believe there is 
substantial information available to indicate that, if properly 
managed, utilization of the greater sage-grouse threatens the continued 
existence of this species throughout its range.
    Under Factor C, the petitions from the Institute for Wildlife 
Protection and American Lands Alliance et al. discuss predation, but 
conclude that significant predator impacts to greater sage-grouse, when 
they occur, are a reflection of anthropogenic impacts to sage-grouse 
habitat and poor land management.
    Greater sage-grouse have many predators, which vary in relative 
importance to the species, depending on the sex and age of the bird, 
and the time of year. Adult female greater sage-grouse are most 
susceptible to predators while on the nest or during brood-rearing when 
they are with young chicks (Schroeder and Baydack 2001). Common nest 
predators include ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.), badgers 
(Taxidea taxus), ravens (Corvus corax), crows (C. brachyrhynchos), 
magpies (Pica pica), coyotes (Canis latrans), and weasels (Mustela 
spp.). Juvenile grouse are susceptible to predation from badgers, red 
foxes (Vulpes vulpes), coyotes, weasels, American kestrels (Falco 
sparverius), merlins (F. columbarius), northern harriers (Circus 
cyaneus), and other hawks (Braun in litt. 1995; Schroeder et al. 1999). 
The mortality rate for juveniles is estimated to be 63 percent during 
the first few weeks after hatching (Schroeder and Baydack 2001). While 
chicks are very vulnerable to predation during this period, other 
causes of mortality, such as weather, are included in this estimate. 
Adult male sage-grouse are most susceptible to predation during the 
mating season as they are very conspicuous while performing their 
mating display. Also, since leks are attended daily, predators may be 
disproportionately attracted to these areas during the breeding season 
(Braun in litt. 1995). Common lek predators include golden eagles 
(Aquila chrysaetos), ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis), red-tailed 
hawks (B. jamaicensis), Swainson's hawks (B. swainsoni), and other 
large raptors.
    Research conducted to determine nest success and sage-grouse 
survival has concluded that predation typically does not limit sage-
grouse numbers (Connelly et al. 2000). However, where sage-grouse 
habitat has been altered, predation can become more significant (Gregg 
et al. 1994; Braun in litt. 1995; Braun 1998; DeLong et al. 1995; 
Schroeder and Baydack 2001). Losses of nesting adult hens and nests 
appear to be related to the amount of herbaceous cover surrounding the 
nest (Braun in litt. 1995; Braun 1998; Connelly et al. 2000; Schroeder 
and Baydack 2001). Removal or reduction of this cover, by any method, 
can negatively affect nest success and adult hen survival. Similarly, 
habitat alteration that reduces cover for young chicks can increase the 
rate of predation on this age class (Schroeder and Baydack 2001). 
Losses of breeding hens and young chicks can negatively influence 
overall sage-grouse population numbers, as these two groups contribute 
most significantly to population productivity. Habitat concerns have 
not been identified as important factors influencing adult male sage-
grouse predation rates as leks are relatively open areas with little 
cover (Schroeder et al. 1999). However, given the sage-grouse breeding 
system, where only a few males are selected by all the females for 
mating, loss of some adult males on the lek is not likely to have 
significant population effects (Braun in litt. 1995). Braun (in litt. 
1995) does recommend limiting powerlines and fences within 1.6 km (1 
mi) of leks to minimize the availability of raptor perches.
    The Institute for Wildlife Protection and American Lands Alliance 
et al. identify several diseases and parasites that may limit greater 
sage-grouse populations. However, the petitioners indicate that disease 
and parasitism are poorly studied in this species (Webb 2002, page 176; 
American Lands Alliance, page 178).
    We agree with the petitioners on the lack of scientific evidence 
about the effects of disease or parasites on sage-grouse populations, 
and acknowledge that this factor may be significant to small, isolated 
populations (Schroeder et al. 1999). We also agree with the 
petitioners' contention that habitat degradation and fragmentation may 
increase the effects of disease and parasites on greater sage-grouse. 
While some research suggests parasites may influence male mating 
success and evolutionary pathways (Boyce 1990), there is little 
information to support that disease or parasites are a significant 
limiting factor in the greater sage-grouse.
    We have recently become aware that greater sage-grouse are 
susceptible to the introduced West Nile Virus (WNV) (Flavivirus), a 
concern highlighted by American Lands Alliance et al. While the virus 
has been implicated in the deaths of 24 individuals in Wyoming and 
Montana, actual population impacts of this disease on sage-grouse are 
not known. A survey of 111 hunter-killed birds and live birds trapped 
at sites of WNV activity in Wyoming and Montana revealed that none of 
the birds had antibody titers against WNV. This evidence is not 
conclusive and warrants further investigation, but suggests that the 
number of sage-grouse surviving WNV infection might be small (Dr. Todd 
Cornish, Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, University of Wyoming, 
pers. comm. 2003). We will continue to monitor this situation.
    Based on the preceding discussion, we do not believe there is 
substantial information available at this time to indicate that disease 
or predation are factors that may threaten the continued existence of 
the greater sage-grouse. We will continue to monitor sage-grouse 
reaction to WNV as the virus becomes more prevalent across the species' 
    Under Factor D, the petitions from the Institute for Wildlife 
Protection and American Lands Alliance et al. claim that regulations 
for greater sage-grouse management established by State wildlife 
agencies are not sufficient to protect the species, because hunting is 
still permitted. The petitions also state that ``existing regulatory 
mechanisms are virtually non-existent'' (Webb 2002, page 177; American 
Lands Alliance et al., page 180) and current management for the 
conservation of greater sage-grouse is insufficient.
    Greater sage-grouse are under the management authority of State 
wildlife agencies. Most State agencies base their

[[Page 21492]]

hunting regulations on local population information and peer-reviewed 
scientific literature regarding the impacts of hunting on the greater 
sage-grouse (Bohne in litt. 2003). Hunting seasons are reviewed 
annually, and most States implement adaptive management based on 
harvest and population data (see previous discussion under Factor B).
    A large portion of habitat for the greater sage-grouse occurs on 
lands managed by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The BLM 
has designated the greater sage-grouse as a special status species in 5 
of the 11 States in which it currently occurs (Nevada, California, 
Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming). Management for special status species 
are addressed under BLM Manual 6840, ``Special Status Species 
Management.'' This document provides agency policy and guidance for the 
conservation of special status plants and animals and the ecosystems on 
which they depend (BLM 2001). Although not a regulatory document, BLM 
Manual 6840 provides a mechanism for the conservation of the greater 
sage-grouse and its habitat. At present, there are no regulations 
requiring that BLM land use plans specifically address the conservation 
needs of special status species (BLM 2003b).
    However, with respect to the sage-grouse, the FWS and BLM are 
developing strategies for conservation of the species, including BLM's 
draft interim planning and habitat management guidelines for its lands. 
FWS and BLM are also working with the States on the Sage Grouse 
Conservation Planning Framework Team which will produce the range-wide 
greater sage grouse conservation assessment and the conservation action 
plans to follow. In addition, BLM is undertaking a number of on-the-
ground sagebrush habitat restoration projects, while it is working to 
complete the longer-term joint conservation assessment and planning.
    The USFS requires that fish and wildlife habitats be managed to 
maintain viable populations of existing native vertebrate species (36 
CFR 219.19). In addition, each region of the USFS maintains a sensitive 
species list. The USFS policy requires the agency to employ special 
management emphasis to ensure the viability of designated sensitive 
species, and ``to preclude trends towards endangerment that would 
result in a need for Federal listing'' (USFS 1991). The greater sage-
grouse is designated as a USFS sensitive species in Regions 1, 2, 4, 5, 
and 6, which are within the species' range. All National Forests within 
these regions are required to implement the USFS Sensitive Species 
Policy (FSM 2672.1) for the greater sage-grouse. In addition, several 
individual National Forests in Regions where the greater sage-grouse is 
not designated as a sensitive species have chosen to make the bird a 
Management Indicator Species (Clinton McCarthy, USFS, pers. comm. 
2003). This designation requires the individual National Forest to 
establish objectives for the maintenance and improvement of habitat for 
the greater sage-grouse (36 CFR 219.19), and to monitor the status of 
this species on the National Forest.
    Some greater sage-grouse habitat also occurs on lands managed by 
other Federal agencies, including the Service, National Park Service, 
Department of Energy, Bureau of Reclamation, and Department of Defense. 
Some agencies have developed site-specific plans for conserving sage-
grouse habitats on their lands (i.e., Yakima Training Center, 
Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge) (66 FR 22984). However, we are 
unaware of any other agency efforts to protect and conserve sage-grouse 
on these Federal lands. Greater sage-grouse also occur on Native 
American Tribal lands. In January 2004, the Service provided a Tribal 
Wildlife Grant to the Shoshone and Arapahoe Joint Council of Wyoming to 
assist in developing a management plan for the greater sage-grouse and 
sagebrush habitats on the Wind River Reservation.
    The petitions from the Institute for Wildlife Protection and 
American Lands Alliance et al. assert that all existing State and 
private conservation planning efforts for sage-grouse are ineffective 
because no regulatory mechanisms or funding resources are in place to 
ensure these efforts are implemented. Most of the States within the 
range of the greater sage-grouse have initiated conservation planning 
efforts for sage-grouse and sage-grouse habitat on State, private, and, 
in some cases, Federal lands. The plans are focused on addressing local 
sage-grouse or sagebrush habitat concerns through a variety of 
mechanisms (i.e., changes in regulations, habitat improvement projects, 
etc.). When completed, the Service will review these conservation plans 
to determine if they are consistent with our Policy for the Evaluation 
of Conservation Efforts (68 FR 15100). This policy evaluates the 
likelihood of implementation and effectiveness for each conservation 
strategy presented. It is currently impossible to evaluate the 
effectiveness of State and private conservation efforts for the greater 
sage-grouse, as most are either being drafted or have not been 
implemented at the time of this finding. The Service is not aware of 
any State regulations that conserve greater sage-grouse habitat or 
encourage habitat conservation efforts on private lands.
    The greater sage-grouse is listed as an endangered species at the 
national level in Canada, as well as at the provincial level in Alberta 
and Saskatchewan. Provincial laws in Saskatchewan prevent sage-grouse 
habitat from being sold or from having native vegetation cultivated. 
Individual birds are protected by provincial law in Alberta, but their 
habitat is not. However, the Province has developed guidelines to 
protect leks. Passage of the Canadian Species At Risk Act in 2002 
allows for habitat regulations to protect sage-grouse (Aldridge and 
Brigham 2003).
    Based on the information currently available to us for this 
finding, the principal concern regarding the adequacy of regulatory 
mechanisms is in relation to habitat conservation. The past and ongoing 
degradation of greater sage grouse habitat, such as habitat conversion, 
fragmentation, and alteration due to various land use practices (see 
discussion of Factor A, above), is due in large part to human actions 
rather than natural events. To the extent that such human-caused 
habitat degradation is contributing to population declines of greater 
sage grouse, it indicates that existing regulatory mechanisms, 
particularly at the Federal level (since most of the habitat is on 
Federal land), but also at the State, Provincial, and local levels, may 
be inadequate with regard to addressing threats to the species.
    Under Factor E, the petitions from the Institute for Wildlife 
Protection and American Lands Alliance et al. assert that fences, 
powerlines, and roads are sources of direct injury and mortality to 
greater sage-grouse. Fences are a documented collision hazard for sage-
grouse (Call and Maser 1985; Braun 1998). Over 51,000 km (31,960 mi) of 
fences were constructed on BLM lands supporting sage-grouse populations 
between 1962 and 1997 (Connelly et al. 2000). Direct mortality of 
greater sage-grouse as a result of collision with, and electrocution 
from, powerlines has been documented (Braun 1998; Aldridge and Brigham 
2003). Sage-grouse suffer direct mortality from collisions with 
automobiles (Hornaday 1916; Braun 1998). To our knowledge, the extent 
of mortality from these factors has not been quantified. Also, the 
Service has not found any evidence suggesting that collisions and 
electrocutions limit greater sage-grouse populations.
    The Institute for Wildlife Protection and American Lands Alliance 
et al. also identify fire as a source of direct

[[Page 21493]]

mortality to the greater sage-grouse. While we agree that some sage-
grouse may perish in fires, either wild or prescribed, this mortality 
factor has not been identified by the scientific community as a 
limiting factor for sage-grouse populations.
    The petitions from the Institute for Wildlife Protection and 
American Lands Alliance et al. identify several factors that may be 
affecting greater sage-grouse populations which are not discussed 
above. These include mining toxins (such as cyanide), herbicides, 
pesticides, ozone depletion, endocrine disrupters, pollution, global 
warming, competition for resources between the greater sage-grouse and 
other species of grouse and livestock, off-road vehicle and snowmobile 
use, noise, weather, natural stochastic events, and loss of genetic 
variation. We know of no scientific information supporting threats to 
greater sage-grouse populations as a result of ozone depletion, 
endocrine disrupters, global warming, or pollution. The petitions also 
do not present supporting scientific information specific to the 
greater sage-grouse and these threats, but rather draw conclusions 
based on studies on other species, including humans.
    At least one study has documented direct mortality of greater sage-
grouse as a result of ingestion of alfalfa sprayed with 
organophosphorus insecticides (Blus et al. 1989). Direct ingestion of 
other herbicides, such as chlordane, also are toxic to sage-grouse 
(Schroeder et al. 1999). However, there is little information 
supporting the contention that normal use of herbicides negatively 
affects greater sage-grouse (Schroeder et al. 1999), and the scientific 
community has not identified exposure to these substances as a limiting 
factor for this species. Pesticides and herbicides may result in a 
reduction of food resources for the greater sage-grouse, particularly 
nesting females and chicks (Schroeder et al. 1999). Seventeen different 
radionuclides (radioactive atoms) were found in greater sage-grouse 
captured near nuclear facilities at the Idaho National Engineering 
Laboratory in southeastern Idaho (Connelly and Markham 1983). The 
effects of these substances on greater sage-grouse appear to be minimal 
(Schroeder et al. 1999).
    During part of the year, greater sage-grouse distribution may 
overlap with sharp-tailed (Tympanuchus phasianellus) and blue 
(Dendragapus obscurus) grouse in some areas of their ranges. Although 
it is likely that these species are consuming some of the same foods, 
there is no information that these resources are limiting and no 
evidence suggesting competition with other grouse species has negative 
effects on sage-grouse (John Connelly, Idaho Department of Fish and 
Game, pers. comm. 2003). Cattle and sheep will consume sagebrush, as 
well as grass. Sheep also consume rangeland forbs in areas where sage-
grouse occur (Pedersen et al. 2003). The effects of direct competition 
between livestock and sage-grouse will depend on condition of the 
habitat and grazing practices, and thus vary across the range of the 
species. For example, Aldridge and Brigham (2003) suggest that poor 
livestock management in mesic sites, which are considered limited 
habitats for sage-grouse in Alberta, results in a reduction of forbs 
and grasses available to sage-grouse chicks, thereby affecting chick 
survival. Livestock may modify sage-grouse habitat by altering 
vegetation structure and changing composition; this is addressed under 
Factor A above.
    The petitions state that off-road vehicle or snowmobile use affects 
greater sage-grouse through habitat alteration and degradation, 
increased stress, and direct mortality. While the petitions do not 
present supporting scientific information specific to the greater sage-
grouse, we agree that habitat degradation may occur in areas of off-
road vehicle and/or snowmobile use through damage to soils and plant 
structure, and creation of corridors for invasive species. These 
concerns have been discussed under Factor A. We are unaware of 
scientific reports documenting direct mortality of greater sage-grouse 
through collision with off-road vehicles or snowmobiles. We also are 
unaware of instances where snow compaction as a result of snowmobile 
use precluded greater sage-grouse survival in wintering areas. Sage-
grouse are highly sensitive to disturbance, and off-road vehicle or 
snowmobile use in winter areas may increase stress on birds and 
displace sage-grouse to less optimal habitats. However, there is no 
empirical evidence available documenting these effects on sage-grouse, 
nor could we find any scientific data supporting the contention that 
stress from vehicles during winter was limiting greater sage-grouse 
    The petitions identify noise as a potential impact to the greater 
sage-grouse through interference with sage-grouse mating displays, 
communication between hens and their broods, movement out of suitable 
habitat, and physiological stress. Acoustic signals are important in 
greater sage-grouse mate selection (Gibson and Bradbury 1985), and the 
impacts of noise on greater sage-grouse resulting from activities 
associated with oil and gas development on public lands have been 
addressed in National Environmental Policy Act documents (e.g., draft 
Environmental Impact Statement for the Pinedale Anticline Oil and Gas 
Exploration and Development Project (BLM 1999)). In Wyoming's Powder 
River Basin, leks within 1.6 km (1 mi) of coal-bed methane facilities 
have consistently lower numbers of males attending than leks farther 
from these types of disturbances. Noise associated with these 
facilities is cited as one possible cause (Braun et al. 2002). However, 
the actual impact of noise from anthropogenic sources on the greater 
sage-grouse is currently unknown. The petitioners acknowledge the lack 
of scientific studies on the effects of noise on the greater sage-
grouse (Webb 2002, page 141; American Lands Alliance et al., page 145).
    Drought is a common occurrence throughout the range of the greater 
sage-grouse (Braun 1998). Sage-grouse populations will decline in a 
drought as a consequence of increased nest predation and early brood 
mortality brought on by decreased nest cover and food availability 
(Braun 1998; Schroeder et al. 1999). Although drought has been a 
consistent and natural part of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem, drought 
impacts on the greater sage-grouse can be exacerbated through poor 
habitat management, which results in reduced cover and food (Braun 
1998; see discussion under Factor A). These effects also may be 
amplified through sagebrush habitat loss, as food and cover may already 
be limited. Cold wet weather during incubation and early brood-rearing 
can result in nest and brood loss (Patterson 1952; Schroeder et al. 
    Natural stochastic (randomly-occurring) events, such as floods and 
blizzards, can significantly affect local populations if the event 
results in high mortality or large areas of habitat loss. These events 
are most significant to small and/or fragmented populations. Small, 
isolated populations also may be at greater risk to the deleterious 
effects from inbreeding. 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 (65 FR 51578). However, these 
influences may now play an important role in the dynamics of relatively 
small and isolated local populations, particularly in the Columbia 
Basin of Oregon and Washington (65 FR 51578; Benedict et al. 2003).
    The Institute for Wildlife Protection and American Lands Alliance 
et al. expressed concerns that greater sage-grouse are susceptible to a 
loss of

[[Page 21494]]

genetic variation due to inbreeding depression. However, in a recent 
survey of 16 greater sage-grouse populations, only the Columbia Basin 
population in Washington shows low genetic diversity, likely as a 
result of long-term population declines and population isolation 
(Benedict et al. 2003). We are unaware of any other genetic studies 
suggesting that inbreeding depression is a concern to other greater 
sage-grouse populations.
    Based on the foregoing discussion, we do not believe there is 
substantial information to indicate that natural and manmade factors 
not associated with habitat loss or degradation (Factor A) threaten the 
continued existence of the greater sage-grouse in the contiguous United 


    We have reviewed the petitions submitted by Mr. Dremann, the 
Institute for Wildlife Protection, and American Lands Alliance et al., 
other pertinent information and scientific literature available in our 
files, and other information provided to us, including the PAW 
commentary. The PAW commentary suggests that there are flaws in the 
petitions, including inaccurate or contradictory statements, erroneous 
interpretation of scientific literature, conclusions not supported by 
literature, a lack of knowledge of the subject material, biased 
presentation, and lack of scientific references. We agree that the 
petitions contain some minor errors of the type identified in the PAW 
report; however, we also acknowledge that the petitions contain 
accurate information, which we have confirmed through our review of the 
scientific, peer-reviewed literature and direct communications with 
species experts. Based on our review of all available information, and 
notwithstanding the factual errors identified within the petitions by 
the PAW report, we find there is substantial information to indicate 
that listing the greater sage-grouse may be warranted. This finding is 
based primarily on the historic and current destruction, modification, 
or curtailment of greater sage-grouse habitat or range, and the 
inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms in protecting greater 
sage-grouse habitats throughout the species' range.

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, 
potential threats to the species, and ongoing management measures that 
may be important with regard to the conservation of the greater sage-
grouse throughout the contiguous United States.
    If you wish to comment, you may submit your comments and materials 
concerning this finding to the Field Supervisor (see ADDRESSES 
section). Our practice is to make comments, including names and home 
addresses of respondents, available for public review during regular 
business hours. Respondents may request that we withhold a respondent's 
identity, as allowable by law. If you wish us to withhold your name or 
address, you must state this request prominently at the beginning of 
your comment. However, we will not consider anonymous comments. To the 
extent consistent with applicable law, we will make all submissions 
from organizations or businesses, and from individuals identifying 
themselves as representatives or officials of organizations or 
businesses, available for public inspection in their entirety. Comments 
and materials received will be available for public inspection, by 
appointment, during normal business hours at the above address.

References Cited

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


    The primary author of this document is Dr. Pat Deibert, Wyoming 
Field Office, Cheyenne, Wyoming.


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

    Dated: April 5, 2004.
Steve Williams,
Director, Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 04-8870 Filed 4-20-04; 8:45 am]