Home Animals Wildfires pose big threat for sage grouse

Wildfires pose big threat for sage grouse

Officials from the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded that wildfires are now a grave threat for the sage grouse, a popular game animal that has suffered a massive population decline.

sage grouse
"Centrocercus urophasianus -USA -male-8" by Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Sacramento, Licensed under CC BY 2.0

As Federal authorities weigh in on whether or not the sage grouse should be considered an endangered species, which could result in massive tracts of land being closed off, a recently released report has found that wildfires pose a huge threat to the bird.

This conclusion was reached after the U.S. Geological Survey comes released a report studying the sage grouse and its primary threats. According to the report, sage grouse’s won’t be critically endangered for at least 30 years based on current conditions. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a September 30th deadline to determine whether or not sage grouse requires protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The sage grouse is the largest grouse in North America, and while the bird is not currently considered an endangered species, it could find itself on the list in the not-so-distant future if the rampant fires threatening the Great Basin region of the United States are not brought under control.

Sage grouse’s are a popular game bird and are a vital part of the economy for many of the states that lay in the Great Basin. Even worse for local communities, if the sage grouse is granted protection, huge chunks of land could be essentially cordoned off as Federal officials move to protect vital breeding grounds and other lands essential to the bird’s survival.

The total amount of economic damage could reach $5.6 billion dollars. Natural gas, oil, and mining industries would be among the most heavily impacted. Given the powerful lobbying groups that back these industries, it’s unlikely that affected companies will go down without a fight if the sage grouse is indeed granted protection.

The Great Basin, where the sage grouse prefers to live, refers to the region immediately east of the Rocky Mountains. The region, along with most of the rest of the West, has seen a sharp increase in wildfires. Many now believe that global warming is contributing to wildfires as weather patterns are affected. Less rain and longer dry seasons is creating the perfect conditions for fires to start.

The population of sage grouse’s has already suffered an extremely sharp decline. Once numbering in the millions, scientists now estimate that only 200,000 to 500,000 of the birds remain. Researchers believe that population numbers have declined by as much as 98 percent, and the bird’s range has been reduced substantially over the past several decades.

Besides wildfires, the birds are facing other threats. Human development has been shown to have a major impact on the birds. Further, an invasive plant called cheatgrass has been wiping out the sage grass that the birds rely on for food.

The birds prefer the sagebrush steppe found throughout much of the Great Basin. Unfortunately, these dry, bush areas are also prone to wildfires, which have grown worse in recent years. The bird is also considered a general indicator for the sagebrush steppe’s in general because of the vital roles they play in the local ecosystem. The birds and their eggs are a favorite among local predators.

Despite the rampant and massive decline of the sage grouse population, the sage grouse is not considered an endangered animal. The sage grouse is protected in some states with local authorities strictly limiting the hunting of the birds. In Idaho, for example, the sage grouse hunting season is limited to about one week per year and only one bird can be taken per day.

Wildfires have become a huge issue in the Great Basin and other western regions. Low rainfall and increased human activity, which can start fires, has lead to an increased number of fires out west. Utah recently reported that it is spending approximately twice as much in 2015 as the state had to in 2014 to fight fires. In August alone, 65 wildfires raged across the west, and changing weather patterns, possibly due to global warming, have increased dry seasons.

Unfortunately, these fires will almost certainly have a detrimental impact on local wildlife. Across the west, extended dry periods are drying vegetation out. Scientists now believe that California is suffering from its worst dry period in at least 500 years. As vegetation dries, once lush, green forests become the perfect kindle for rampant wildfires, and with rains few and far between, stopping these fires can be next to impossible.

Costs are also piling up. Earlier it September, the Forest Service reported spending $243 million dollars in one week to fight fires. Add in local and state governments, and the spending is even larger.