Washington State Recovery Plan for the Greater Sage-Grouse


Published: May 2004

Pages: 121

Author(s): Derek W. Stinson, David W. Hays and Michael Schroeder

Executive Summary

The sage-grouse was listed as a threatened species by the state of Washington in 1998. In May 2001, the Washington population of the sage-grouse also became a Candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) found that listing as Threatened was warranted but precluded by higher priority listing activities. This Recovery Plan summarizes the state of knowledge of sage-grouse in Washington and outlines strategies to increase their population size and distribution in order to ensure the existence of a viable population of the species in the state.

The sage-grouse has been declining in Washington and many parts of its range in North America. The reduction in sage-grouse numbers and distribution in Washington is primarily attributed to loss of habitat through conversion to cropland and degradation of habitat by historic overgrazing and the invasion by cheatgrass and noxious weeds. Sage-grouse occur on about 8% of their historical range in the state. The population is estimated to have declined 62% from 1970 to 2003. Local extirpations have been noted as recently as the 1980's. The statewide breeding population of sage-grouse in Washington in 2003 was estimated to be 1,011 birds. This estimate is based on leks counts of males, and probably is an underestimate.

A breeding population of about 624 sage-grouse is located in Douglas and Grant Counties where a large amount of agricultural lands are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and shrub-steppe remnants exist where rocky soil and rugged terrain have precluded agricultural conversion. The other population of about 387 birds is located in Kittitas and Yakima counties in contiguous shrub-steppe that has been maintained on the Yakima Training Center (YTC), a U.S. Army training facility. Neither of the 2 isolated grouse populations is large enough for long-term viability. A recent investigation indicated reduced genetic diversity in both the YTC and Douglas-Grant populations. The polygamous mating system and fluctuations of sage-grouse populations over time reduce the effective population size and increase the number of grouse needed for a population to be viable.

Major threats to the Washington populations include fires and continued conversion of shrub-steppe to cropland or development; additional factors affecting sage-grouse include the impacts of military training and past and ongoing grazing practices. The Douglas-Grant County population is dependent on voluntary enrollment of private lands in CRP, a program that may not always be funded by Congress. Maintenance of the YTC population requires frequent rehabilitation of damage to vegetation caused by military training. Wind energy developments may pose a threat to recovery if sage-grouse avoid nesting and brood rearing within 1 mile of wind turbines, as has been predicted for prairie-chickens. One wind energy project that was recently denied a permit by Benton County, might have effectively eliminated 43 mi2 of recovery area from use by breeding sage-grouse; a second proposal may affect suitability of habitat in an important corridor between the 2 existing populations. Remaining habitat has been degraded by fragmentation, historic overgrazing, fires, and the invasion by cheatgrass, medusahead, and other exotic weeds. Disease is a potential new threat to the population. In August 2003, West Nile Virus killed sage-grouse in Wyoming, Montana, and Alberta. The implications of the added source of mortality for more robust populations are not yet known, but the disease may pose a serious threat to Washington’s small populations.

The small size and continued threats to the 2 populations suggest that the long-term persistence of sagegrouse in Washington will depend on protecting and enhancing suitable shrub-steppe habitat, re-establishing additional populations, and expanding existing populations outside the current occupied areas. The minimum viable population for sage-grouse in Washington is estimated at 3,200 birds. The recovery objective to down-list the sage-grouse from Threatened to Sensitive status is an average breeding season population of at least 3,200 birds for a period of 10 years, with active lek complexes in 6 or more Sage-grouse Management Units. The recovery plan outlines strategies to increase population numbers and distribution. A study is underway to evaluate the feasibility of re-establishing a sage-grouse population on the Yakama Reservation through reintroductions. A project to translocate additional birds into the YTC population to reduce genetic deterioration is also underway; 25 sage-grouse hens were trapped in Nevada and transported to Washington and released on the YTC in March 2004.

Sage-grouse recovery will require protecting remaining shrub-steppe habitat from fires, harmful grazing, conversion, and development. Some areas of degraded shrub-steppe will need to be restored in order to support nesting sage-grouse. The structure of older CRP fields increasingly resembles shrub-steppe and provides important habitat, but CRP does not guarantee long-term protection. New programs in the 2002 Farm Bill may benefit sage-grouse by providing funding for habitat improvements, protection, and the acquisition of perpetual conservation easements. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and The Nature Conservancy have recently acquired lands where shrub-steppe will be protected or restored, but restoration may take a long period of time. The success of sage-grouse recovery, however, may depend on cooperative efforts by private landowners, tribes, and agencies that manage public lands in recovery areas or influence agricultural practices on private lands. These agencies include the U.S. Army, WDFW, BLM, USFWS, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Parks, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. A multi-party 5-year action plan for sage-grouse that will outline more specific actions and responsibilities may be completed by the Washington Sage-grouse Working Group in 2004.

Maintaining sage-grouse in Washington will depend on protecting remaining habitat, restoring degraded habitat and re-establishing populations outside their current range. Sage-grouse recovery in Washington will take a sustained cooperative effort by many agencies and individuals for a long period of time. Successful recovery of sage-grouse will result in benefits to many other shrub-steppe species that have also declined dramatically in the state.

Draft documents

Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.