Birds, Bunnies and Power 

Sensitive species butt heads with energy needs in the battle for sagebrush

Somewhere, out in the Lemhi Basin of northern Central Idaho, a small rabbit is nestled in its burrow beneath the gnarled and twisting sagebrush. In Boise, someone is turning on the air conditioning on a hot summer day. The two events hardly seem linked, but that little high desert bunny might just be the next touchstone in the battle to balance the needs of industry and development and Mother Nature.

Decades ago, the thousands of square miles of sagebrush ecosystem in the Intermountain West was considered wasteland--something to be "reclaimed" in the name of progress. Massive swaths of sagebrush were removed to make way for farming, towns and roads as more people moved into the arid region. Through boom and bust, sagebrush became fields, lawns and parking lots. And while it opened the door to economic success, the loss of that sagebrush was having repercussions only now being fully explored.

That now-fragmented sagebrush ecosystem is home to a number of unique species that depend solely on sagebrush and other native plants for all aspects of their existence. Among them are sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.

The declining numbers of sage grouse, an upland bird species, have been of concern for years among both conservationists and wildlife management agencies. But until fairly recently, the pygmy rabbit was below just about everyone's radar. That is, until an isolated population of pygmy rabbits in Washington became extinct in the wild.

Since then, pygmy rabbits in neighboring Western states have been gaining attention from a broader spectrum of the public. Now, petitions to list both sage grouse and pygmy rabbits for protection under the Endangered Species Act await rulings from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is currently conducting Species Reviews on both animals, as well as for the high desert plant, slickspot peppergrass.

Now, three species in Idaho have the potential to be listed as endangered within just a few years.

If any is granted federal protection, it could drastically change the nature of development across much of the West, where the open sagebrush-covered lands are still often the focus of development. A critical mass of conflicting factors is on the horizon as the growing energy needs of the West and a concerted push to develop wind energy land squarely in the front yard of two of the regions' most sensitive species.

Sage Grouse

For decades, sage grouse have been the poster species for the preservation of sagebrush ecosystems. Both government and private researchers have studied sage grouse extensively, and the birds' declining numbers are well documented. Conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, have filed seven petitions in roughly eight years requesting that portions or all of the species be placed under federal protection. Yet time and again, Fish and Wildlife has not found cause to place sage grouse on the list.

Part of the reason is the work already being done in the 11 Western states within the birds' range to mitigate the problems leading to declining numbers. In Idaho, sage grouse are considered a sensitive species, and land and wildlife management agencies take the birds into consideration when making management decisions. The state has had a sage grouse management plan since 1997, which was updated in 2006.

Across the state, the situation facing sage grouse can vary, with some areas recording high enough numbers of birds to allow for a limited hunting season. It's the sage grouse's status as a game bird that also draws attention from a larger portion of the public.

Sage grouse are considered a sagebrush obligate species, meaning they rely entirely on sagebrush and the sagebrush ecosystem for survival. The birds live on the ground, using the sagebrush for shelter and cover, as well as eating it during the lean winter months. Each spring, wildlife watchers travel from all over to watch the grouse gather in leks for their showy mating dance in which the males puff out their chest plumage and perform in an attempt to capture the attention of an eligible female.

The birds require large areas of uninterrupted habitat. John Connelly, a principal wildlife research biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game based out of Idaho State University, said that within a year, sage grouse can range across an area the size of Rhode Island. This need for space has led to what many see as the greatest threat to the species.

Development across the West has led to sagebrush range being chopped into sections, often isolating populations of sage grouse and other wildlife.

Connelly has been studying sage grouse for the last 30 years and has seen numbers decline during the decades. He outlined his findings in an extensive study he co-authored with three other wildlife researchers in 2004. The Sage Grouse Conservation Assessment is a weighty tome that is now the go-to reference in the sage grouse argument. In it, the authors show clear and sometimes dramatic decreases in sage grouse populations, as well as habitat loss.

With a measured reply, Connelly said it's reasonable to have concerns about the species, although he's careful to add that research is still ongoing.

Connelly credits the population decline to a list of factors topped by wildfires, the invasion of non-native plant species like cheatgrass, West Nile virus, oil and gas development, and suburban expansion. Wildfire is a threat because of the destruction of habitat, and without the sagebrush, fast-growing species like cheatgrass are able to take over. Cheatgrass is an excellent fuel for fires, thereby increasing the frequency of wildfires and creating a destructive loop.

Although well studied, sage grouse are surprisingly hard to count because of their habitat and their vast range, so exact population numbers are hard to nail down.

Sage grouse habitat covers areas largely managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and BLM officials have also seen a decline in the overall population. Paul Makela, a BLM wildlife biologist based in Boise, said the population has declined across the West by roughly 3 percent per year since 1965, while at the same time, the size of the area sage grouse occupy decreased by roughly 44 percent since historic times.

Tom Hemker, state habitat manager for Fish and Wildlife, said the department counts between 700 and 800 leks (sage grouse gatherings) each year, and that anywhere the habitat is good, the birds are doing well. Some of the healthiest populations of sage grouse can be found in Idaho in the western Owyhees and parts of the Upper Snake River Valley. But there are still numerous concerns across the birds' range.

West Nile is a relatively new threat to sage grouse. And while infection numbers have dropped after the initial outbreak several years ago, researchers said it had devastating impact on sage grouse. Connelly said that in some areas, up to 20 to 30 percent of sage grouse populations died from West Nile. While other species appear to have developed some immunity to the virus, Connelly said it appears that grouse lack that ability, making them harder hit than many birds.

"Sage grouse cannot survive if they contract West Nile," he said simply.

But beyond the towns and farms, an increasing number of people are pointing to energy development as one of the leading threats to the birds.

"Populations are getting hammered in other states from energy production," said John Robison, public lands director with the Idaho Conservation League. "[Idaho] still has some of the best intact habitat."

Energy development poses a multitude of risks to sage grouse. First, the actual development of a site disturbs habitat. But more than the physical site of the transmission line, windmill or oil derrick, the infrastructure that goes along with running and maintaining the site causes continuing disruption.

Second, most energy development projects involve the construction of tall structures, which some researchers believe offer perches and nesting sites for raptors and ravens, both of which prey on sage grouse or their eggs. Connelly said studies are still being done to look at just how directly sage grouse are affected by these sorts of structures.

But Katy Fite, biodiversity director for Western Watersheds, doesn't give much weight to the research being done by state agencies, claiming that researchers from the University of Idaho are contorting statistical analysis to make the situation look better.

And while Fite agrees that habitat fragmentation and loss is the chief factor in the declining numbers of sage grouse, her ultimate cause for that loss differs from researchers. She places the bulk of the blame firmly on cattle grazing, which she said destroys the best sagebrush habitat through actual grazing or the removal of sagebrush to make room for better forage material. Researchers with other agencies said that while cattle may have an impact, they have yet to document such a major cause-and-effect relationship.

Fite doesn't have much hope for the effectiveness of local working groups, which work to inventory species and improve habitat.

"They do do some good projects, but at the scale and scope of what needs to be done ... it has to come from a broader-based federal initiative level to oversee and to put it into a legal framework," she said.

Pygmy Rabbits

Unlike sage grouse, pygmy rabbits have lived in about as much obscurity as a North American mammal can. It's not for lack of appeal. The tiny bunnies, complete with long ears and twitching noses, can make even field-weary biologists' voices rise a pitch as they use words like "cute."

"If I can say this even as a biologist, they're adorable," said Beth Waterbury, non-game biologist in the Salmon region of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "They're not as high profile as sage grouse because they're not a hunted species. The hunting aspect brings a lot of attention."

The rabbits average only between 9 and 11 inches in length, and weigh 1 pound or less, making them the smallest variety of rabbit in North America. But the little rabbits are quickly becoming one of the largest issues in wildlife conservation in the West.

"[Pygmy rabbits have] the potential to be a very big issue and something Idahoans are going to have to deal with sooner or later," Robison said.

Fite added that she believes the rabbits are "in more dire straits" than sage grouse.

Like sage grouse, pygmy rabbits depend on sagebrush ecosystems, digging burrows beneath sagebrush in which they spend a great deal of their time. They don't seem to travel all that far from home and use the sagebrush for food as well as cover.

But beyond that, relatively little is known about the species. While researchers were doing some minor field studies, things began to change when the distinct population segment in the Columbia Basin in Washington was declared extinct in the wild. The remaining animals were gathered and used in a captive breeding program at Washington State University with the ultimate goal of releasing the rabbits into the wild. Unfortunately, to date, the program has been unsuccessful in creating a stable population in the wild.

With the Washington population all but gone, attention suddenly focused on the larger pygmy rabbit population, found in Idaho and Oregon, as well as Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and California. But the rabbits are facing the same threats as sage grouse because of their dependence on a single environment.

While two petitions to list pygmy rabbits have been filed, with one still pending, that listing looks doubtful simply for lack of baseline information about the species.

In Waterbury's study area in east Central Idaho, she said there are "probably pretty healthy populations," but it's difficult to put exact terms on just what is "healthy" considering researchers really don't have a starting point to measure from.

Getting those population estimates has become a high priority for Fish and Game, and the department is working quickly to develop a systematic monitoring system to help really begin to understand pygmy rabbits.

"What we need is to find out how to proceed with monitoring," Waterbury said. "To look at the stability of the population and document it with very good scientific data.

"It is imperative that we fully understand the scope of the issues and the impacts that might be affecting pygmy rabbits."

One thing Waterbury is sure of is that most people don't realize how specialized pygmy rabbits are to the sagebrush ecosystem, making them a unique species. The key to preserving the rabbits is maintaining their habitat, she said, adding that in areas that have been cut off by development, populations will most likely decline.

Unlike the impact of grazing on sage grouse, more researchers are willing to draw a connection between grazing levels and impacts on pygmy rabbits--something ranchers have long argued against. But like in all other areas dealing with the species, there just isn't the research to support the theories yet, Waterbury said.

"There is a lot of anecdotal information, but there's no empirical data saying, 'yes, this is really negatively impacting pygmy rabbit habitat,'" she said. "Intuitively we might see some issues, but we need the scientific support."

But while the scientific community says it needs more information on the rabbits, conservation supporters like Western Watersheds say that claim is "nonsense."

"Enough is known in large areas," Fite said.

Waterbury believes it is possible Fish and Wildlife will defer listing the rabbits simply because of lack of information. "We need to be able to show irrefutably that you have population declines," she said.

Waterbury said she believes the potential impacts on development and land use by listing pygmy rabbits could well catch the public off guard, simply because the species has yet to be brought to the forefront of the conservation debate.

But rabbits will soon be getting a lot more attention in the form of environmental analysis.

"It may seriously impact things like livestock grazing, [electrical] transmission line siting, off-road vehicle use, even prescribed burns," Waterbury said.

Leading the pack of researchers is Janet Rachlow, assistant professor at the University of Idaho in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Since 2002, she has been working to address the gaps in knowledge about the species while working to create the monitoring system.

"It's surprising for this day and age that there's a mammal that we know relatively little about," she said.

From looking at distribution, movement and even how they raise their young, researchers are starting from the beginning. Pygmy rabbits are surprisingly hard to count, in part, because they spend so much time in their burrows, meaning that just being in prime pygmy rabbit habitat doesn't mean you'll find any.

Rachlow has worked to help develop a DNA test used on fecal droppings to identify where pygmy rabbits live.

Bill Bosworth, zoology lead for conservation sciences in the state Fish and Game office, said much of the research being done now was prompted by interest at the federal level following the first petition for listing in 2003.

With the monitoring system now in development, Bosworth said he hopes to be able to create the baseline information needed to start looking for trends, as well as to learn just how the rabbits respond to changes in their environment. He hopes to begin the first surveys this fall.

The lack of information has also been a challenge for the BLM as the agency tries to make decisions that take the species into consideration.

"It's difficult to conserve a species if we don't understand its habitat needs," Makela said.

For Rachlow and other researchers, pygmy rabbits are not an isolated species. "We can take the one-species triage approach or take the ecosystem approach," she said. "What can we do to keep the ecosystem healthy?"

As in the case of sage grouse, Fite has little belief in the process. "I have no faith that [Fish and Wildlife] will actually do the right thing for the pygmy rabbits because there are still too many of the, shall we say, backward-looking industry-friendly folks in place that are still in denial to a large degree about the science of the factors that are affecting pygmy rabbits across their range," she said.

Listing

Ultimately, the decision whether to place either sage grouse or pygmy rabbits on the Endangered Species List is up to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Currently, both are undergoing a Species Review since the initial petition for both had enough arguments to warrant further consideration.

Pat Deibert, a biologist out of the Cheyenne, Wyo., office of Fish and Wildlife, said the department has to rely on the best science available, as well as information from the public to make its decision. It has one year from the start of a species review to make a decision, but that's a deadline Deibert admits is rarely met due largely to time and budgetary limits.

Once a decision is made, a species will have one of three fates: be rejected for listing, be listed immediately or be categorized as a candidate species, meaning that while it does meet the criteria for listing, there are other species at a greater risk and there isn't the money to support both.

While candidate species don't have federal protection, they do affect how land management agencies address the species in their policies.

Fish and Wildlife was supposed to issue decisions on sage grouse by the end of May, but because of a delay in publication of a key study by up to a year, the department is negotiating a new deadline.

When it comes to pygmy rabbits, Deibert said the lack of information is a "huge problem."

In making a decision, Fish and Wildlife looks at five factors: habitat loss or modification; overuse; disease and predation; regulations already in place; and an "other" category, which can include climate change and population size.

Energy

Historically, the main debate when it came to endangered species centered on grazing and agriculture, but now, the focus is shifting to energy. It's an issue made all the more prominent thanks to a combination of factors: increasing population in the West, a push to develop renewable energy and the introduction of federal stimulus money to fund those renewable projects.

In many cases, energy developers target open sagebrush lands for these projects for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are often public lands and access is easier. Unfortunately for sage grouse and pygmy rabbits, they share the same taste in location.

"I'm not sure everybody fully appreciates [the potential impacts] at this point," said Tom Perry, legal council to the Governor's Office of Species Conservation. "I don't think the energy companies have had that push back [that logging companies and cattle ranchers have seen] to where they're going to have to start thinking about it."

"Idaho is in the unfortunate situation of being between power-producing states like Montana and Wyoming and power consuming states like Nevada and California," Robison said. "We happen to be in the way."

"Power companies are competing with each other to put this kind of infrastructure in ... to bring power to the market [and] the BLM is kind of like the guy in Animal House saying, 'Don't panic, don't panic, everybody stay calm,' and he gets run over."

The expansion of major power transmission lines has become a hot-button issue in states across the West, but each state is dealing with it on its own, which is what Robison believes is part of the problem. "There isn't the coordination to deal with the cumulative effects," he said.

Recently, Idaho Power's Gateway West project proposing a 500 kilovolt transmission line spanning 1,150 miles from central Wyoming to the western edge of Idaho has drawn a spate of public outcry because of its placement across both public and private land.

Western Watersheds believes power companies are just another example of how industry rules the decision-making process.

"The power of oil and gas, wind development and cattle industries remains so great that they still hold more political clout to push more harmful action and promote more harmful action like grazing," Fite said.

But Brett Dumas, environmental supervisor for Idaho Power, said the company is carefully taking wildlife, and especially sensitive species like sage grouse, into consideration when planning its projects, adding the same consideration was taken in the Gateway West development.

"It becomes an element in our process," he said. "We look at critical habitat, where are the leks, and incorporate it in our routing. In Idaho, we've done a very good job of avoiding sage grouse habitat where we can."

Dumas said the company also tries to mitigate and rehabilitate areas where impacts are unavoidable. He points to Idaho Power's own studies that show 110 sage grouse leks within three kilometers of transmission lines that have been active for more than 20 years.

The realities of modern life come into play, though, in the simple fact that we all need electricity and most of Idaho's transmission lines are already pushed to the limits.

"There's a need to update transmission infrastructure, but no one wants it in their back yard," Robison said.

Even wind power projects, which many people see as benign, environmentally friendly options, can affect species like sage grouse and pygmy rabbits for the same reasons traditional energy projects do. Additionally, wind projects need to be connected to the larger power grid in order to get electricity to consumers, and in many cases, that means the construction of new transmission lines.

It's a situation Waterbury calls green-washing. "It's green-washing on projects where people think because it's a green project, that there's no environmental impact," she said. "You can be guaranteed there is a wildlife impact."

Recently, the American Society of Mammalogists passed a resolution demanding more research be done on the impacts of wind turbines on birds and bats, but Rachlow worries about the speed in which new projects are going up. "There's a real push for development, and there's a lot of questions about unintended consequences," she said.

Some fear that energy development projects could be the tipping point that forces federal protection for sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.

"Transmission lines might be the straw," Robison said.

It's a concern shared by Fish and Game, and Waterbury said the department is working closely with the Governor's Office of Species Conservation to help get new projects placed where they will have the least impact on wildlife. She compares the effort to a game of pop-goes-the-weasel.

"It may not bode well for some of these sagebrush species unless people are willing to kick it into gear and save big swaths of this habitat," Waterbury said. "We have to have the habitat intact or what does it matter?"

Makela said the BLM is also focused on proper siting of projects and stressed that each proposal must go through a stringent environmental assessment process.

While some people ask why all power lines can't just be buried, Dumas said in the case of high-voltage lines, it's a matter of both safety and cost. The heat generated by high-voltage lines is too great to put underground, he said, adding that it costs 10-times more to bury a line. Typically, the cost of constructing a line on a tower is $1 million per mile.

If sage grouse or pygmy rabbits were to be protected, Dumas said most people really wouldn't see much difference when it comes to their electricity. In fact, federal protection would make the process of development much more straightforward for companies like Idaho Power, which would only have to work by the rules of one agency rather than hammer out agreements with numerous land management agencies and private land owners. Under federal protection, a project would have to undergo a biological assessment by Fish and Wildlife, and as long as the individual project didn't put the species in question in jeopardy, the project would be approved.

Dumas said Idaho Power is examining how best to incorporate wind power into its program and added that it is receiving a lot of requests for small wind projects.

What to Do

But Idaho isn't waiting for the federal government to step in and order conservation measures. Many involved, from government agencies to private citizens, would like to avoid the need to put sage grouse or pygmy rabbits on the Endangered Species List at all.

"Any kind of listing would certainly complicate federal land management," Hemker said.

Rather than a top-down approach, Fish and Game and other agencies are working on a local level, trying to tailor conservation measures to fit the needs and situations of each area in a vast and diverse range. There are 11 sage grouse working groups across the state leading the effort to take better inventories of the species and spearhead habitat improvement. Additionally, management agencies are working with individual landowners to create conservation agreements that will serve the dual purpose of improving sage grouse habitat while recognizing the needs of the landowners.

But for groups like Western Watersheds, federal protection is the only answer.

"We know what happens when we start fragmenting habitat. Quick population crashes can occur," Fite said.

The group takes issue with the scientific findings of government wildlife and land management agencies, claiming that the agencies do not want to see a new listing because it would be seen as a failure of their management actions.

"There are political implications," Fite said. "[If the species were listed], they would have to take more care of the sagebrush habitat. They would have to turn down energy projects.

"In Idaho and Nevada and everywhere else, there's always the interjection of politics of how state game agencies deal with the world and how they present information to the world," she said.

Robison believes these big issues need to have a big-picture approach. "It's time for a statewide-level look at how these impacts can be, first, avoided, and then second, minimized, and third, mitigated," he said.

It's an approach actually shared by some at the state level, including the Governor's Office of Species Conservation. "We can't continue to try to address these issues species by species," said Perry. "The resources and the time and energy just isn't there to do that. We have to start thinking what we can do on a landscape level."

Perry believes the key will be to look at the issue from a broad perspective, but to take action at a local level, making it easier to address the varied threats that pop up across the West. But in order to tailor conservation approaches to the needs of specific areas, action has to be taken before either species is put on the Endangered Species List.

"The BLM is going to have a cookie-cutter approach, and that's not a solution that works for the species or the permittee," he said. "Not all landscapes are the same."

"It certainly makes for some challenges in managing the landscape," Makela said of the possibility of federal protection. "Even though the BLM has a mandate to manage for sensitive species, we also have a mandate to manage for goods and services for society, so finding that balance between competing resources can be quite a challenge," he said.

The Species Conservation office has been working with other agencies and private landowners in several areas of the state, including one near Weiser, to create candidate conservation programs in which landowners agree to voluntarily take actions that mitigate impacts on sensitive species.

And by implementing local measures sooner rather than later, if federal protection should come, it would be less of a drastic change for many land users, Makela said.

Perry would like to see more of a cooperative effort in forming conservation plans like the ones seen in the Idaho Roadless Rule and the recent Owyhee Initiative.

Makela agrees that change has to happen on the local level. "Getting the local community involved is key to achieving balanced decisions and also key in providing a venue in getting people talking together and creating avenues for creative decisions," he said.

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