CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming's policy to protect sage grouse may allow for more disturbance near their breeding grounds than what the bird can tolerate, according to a new government study.
Data released Monday by the U.S. Geological Survey suggest the threatened bird can tolerate disturbances in up to about 3 percent of surrounding land sections. Wyoming's sage grouse policy, signed as an executive order by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and affirmed by Gov. Matt Mead, allows for 5 percent surface disturbance, which could include such things as roads, antenna towers and industrial development.
The policy is designed to protect grouse leks, or breeding grounds. But according to the study, Wyoming's policy may not be enough.
Steve Knick, a USGS scientist and author of the study, said that he's not sure whether the data says anything about how much land surrounding grouse leks should be disturbed.
"To me the take-home message of what we did is sage grouse are really susceptible to disturbance," he said. "Any minimal land use you can have, the better."
Mead said in a prepared statement that the study backs Wyoming's own plan to protect the bird.
"This study supports Wyoming’s first-in-the-nation strategy for protecting the greater sage-grouse," he said. "Wyoming is working to maintain a healthy sage-grouse population so that it never needs to be listed."
Officials with the federal Bureau of Land Management's Wyoming office said they hadn't had a chance to review the study but would work closely with the state in considering new information.
Other Wyoming officials said that they will also consider the study as needed.
"Times change, things change," said Bob Budd, executive director of the state's wildlife and natural resources trust. "Our group is constantly looking at the changing information we can get."
Budd added that a change from 3 percent to 5 percent on 640-acre tracts of land — the area used in the study — is small, meaning Wyoming's 5 percent max may not be as far away from the study's results as it looks. Two percent of 640 is 13.
"I don’t know why we’re getting wound up" over 13 acres per section, he said. "It's disconcerting."
The grouse have for years been the center of environmental discussion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 designated the bird as a candidate for listing as an endangered species, a move that would greatly restrict use of land in known sage grouse habitat.
Several agencies and states have in the meantime adopted new policies to protect the bird. Wyoming was the first to enact a formal policy, and Budd said he's since helped Utah, Idaho and Nevada craft similar rules.
The service will make a final decision about whether to list the grouse as an endangered species in 2015.
The USGS collected data used in the study, which was published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, from key breeding grounds in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, California, Utah and Colorado. Using information about environments surrounding the highly-used areas, they determined where grouse were most likely to breed.
The majority of leks were in areas dominated by at least 40 percent sagebrush. The birds also showed a tendency to gravitate toward treeless, arid regions.
The USGS has no decisionmaking authority regarding sage grouse.
"We have no regulatory role," agency spokeswoman Ruth Jacobs said. "We do science. The decision-making is with the states and federal agencies that manage habitats."
Budd said his department will take the study under consideration and determine how applicable it is to Wyoming.
"I think all of the studies being done have bearing on all the states," he said. "As far as the way the birds in Idaho react versus way the birds in Wyoming react, I don’t know if you can make a direct corollary."