Worsening Wildfires Could Halve Sage-Grouse Populations

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The greater sage-grouse is known for its lively mating dance; its populations are in serious decline because of habitat degradation. REUTERS/Bob Wick/BLM Handout

Populations of greater sage-grouse, chicken-sized birds known for their colorful plumage and outlandish mating dance, have declined from 16 million a century ago to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 today. Their decline has been driven primarily by habitat loss and degradation, and in some places it's even worse than others. Canadian populations of the bird declined 98 percent between 1988 and 2012.

But a new threat can be added to the list: wildfires. If worsening fires can't be subdued, they are likely to reduce the population of these birds by half over the next 30 years, according to a study by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The fire threat goes hand in hand with the decline of sagebrush habitat generally, which is "recognized as one of the most imperiled ecosystems in America," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). This habitat type is found in the Great Basin, a vast area of the American West that stretches south to Arizona and north to Idaho. The area is dominated by the aromatic shrubs upon which sage-grouse feed. Invasive grasses such as cheatgrass, which can outcompete sagebrush and burn more quickly and fiercely, are largely responsible for the decline.

The new USGS study identifies "potential ways to avert sage-grouse declines by classifying areas for their resilience to disturbance and resistance to invasive species such as cheatgrass, and then applying suitable strategies," the Associated Press reported. "Public land managers have already been doing that, but the USGS report could fine tune those efforts."

The findings come shortly before a September 30 deadline by which the FWS must decide whether the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act and could help factor into that decision, Boise State University professor John Freemuth told the AP. The status of the bird has proved controversial; environmentalists say that the bird needs protection, while others argue an endangered listing would have an economic impact in the billions of dollars because of lost development and business opportunities.