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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But beyond the towns and farms, an increasing number of people are
pointing to energy development as one of the leading threats to the
"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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
"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
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
"It may seriously impact things like livestock grazing, [electrical]
transmission line siting, off-road vehicle use, even prescribed burns,"
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
"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
The lack of information has also been a challenge for the BLM as the
agency tries to make decisions that take the species into
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
Some fear that energy development projects could be the tipping
point that forces federal protection for sage grouse and pygmy
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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.