U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   09/24/2004
 
Statement of Jim Mosher
North American Grouse Partnership (and American Wildlife Conservation Partners)
Oversight to review state and private programs for sage grouse conservation

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, my name is Jim Mosher. I am the executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership, a wildlife biologist and, at every opportunity, an upland bird hunter. My professional career has encompassed university teaching and research, environmental consulting and administration of non-profit conservation programs and organizations.

The North American Grouse Partnership that I now serve is a very young organization, incorporated in the State of Idaho by a group of dedicated sportsmen and professional biologists concerned in particular about the lack of adequate management to address the needs of prairie grouse species and the grasslands and sage communities that support these populations. Our organization’s approach and strategy as we work on behalf of grouse conservation at the local and national policy level is based on a few fundamental principles: 1) sound scientific understanding should drive resource management decisions, 2) the well-being of the species on which we focus our attention reflects the health, or lack thereof, of whole communities [it is the habitat that supports those communities that is our primary concern], and 3) fair and sustainable solutions to resource conflicts arise best from open and honest dialogue among all who have a stake in the outcomes.

The Challenges

This hearing appropriately focuses attention on the condition of sage grouse populations, their habitats and the near and long-term challenges to conserving this valuable resource - issues of immense concern to us and our colleagues. I thank the Committee for providing this forum to look toward solutions that will protect sage grouse while permitting access to and use of other important resources. I must also note here that the challenges that are faced today by sage grouse are of no less concern for other grouse species. While we are working to find the most effective measures to protect and restore sage grouse habitat and populations, we must understand that we could be here again very soon talking about lesser prairie chickens or other prairie grouse if we are not successful in properly managing our grassland and sage communities.

There are at least three fundamental problems affecting landscapes that grouse depend on for survival: 1) habitat fragmentation [or insufficient habitat scale], 2) habitat alteration resulting from a number of human uses and 3) woody succession and/or invasive species. Note also that the effects of prolonged drought exacerbate these challenges. Absent our ability to control that factor, we must pay particular attention to the amount and quality of remaining habitat.

It is worth acknowledging here that sage grouse populations are not in the condition they are in today simply because of any one land use. Many different uses fragment the habitat and/or impact species behavior and habitat use. It is rather the cumulative affect of all of these factors. Our system of land management has tended to drive public and private land decisions to be made in isolation without fully considering cumulative and range-wide effects. Addressing these issues singly is moreover likely to polarize stakeholders and make sensible solutions more difficult if not impossible to secure.

We suggest as this discussion about the positive actions that may be taken continues, that we would benefit as well from a consideration of underlying policy questions that arise from conflicting resource interests, especially on our multiple use public lands. There is an implication that we can do it all, everywhere, all the time – we only need to be more careful about how we undertake each activity. We do very positive things like instituting Best Management Practices to minimize impacts and/or mitigate for some that are unavoidable. We trust that all the interests will be served. I imagine we would all agree that’s not always so. At least with respect to sage grouse, there are clearly levels and scale of activities beyond which populations will not survive. As local populations become disconnected from adjacent populations they become more fragile and the likelihood of collapse of each increases. There have been and will be places where the real test is an ‘either/or’ question. In these places we can’t do it all. The question is - do we permit activities that will likely preclude maintaining viable grouse populations? How do we decide where those places are? How then do we decide? These are difficult questions because in large part they make us face unpleasant choices and imply winners and losers. I think a positive step is to face these choices and put these questions openly on the table whenever and wherever they pertain with all the stakeholders engaged.

Contributions from the hunting community

Despite difficult challenges we face to conserve sage grouse, the community of hunters and allied conservationists for whom sage grouse are an integral part of our lives none-the-less have and will continue to contribute in numerous ways. As a threshold matter, it should be recognized that sportsmen have largely paid for the restoration of wildlife once in this country and should not be expected to do so alone again. In this instance it is sportsmen-supported state wildlife agencies that have taken the lead in the Conservation Assessment of Greater Sage Grouse and Sagebrush Habitat as well as in development of strategic planning that is now is process. This Assessment is a fundamentally important document that begins to chart a course to conservation measures – our ultimate success will be predicated on effective and widespread implementation.

We are generally a practical-minded group and clearly understand that prevention is nearly always less expensive than the cure. Investments in sage grouse habitat improvement and range expansion made now will be far less costly than any recovery attempts later. Moreover, in the absence of appropriate management now we may foreclose some recovery options entirely.

Individual sportsmen and their organizations contribute to sage grouse conservation in many ways through their license dollars, direct contributions to projects, technical expertise, through support of conservation organizations that represent their interests and through those organizations’ programs. Sportsmen give generously of their time and their funds whenever and wherever the effort promises successful outcomes for wildlife. There are many specific examples of these contributions including local projects that have been funded by and implemented through volunteers. The following are a few examples of what sportsmen’s conservation groups can do and are doing specifically for sage grouse.

In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the N.A. Grouse Partnership’s Idaho Chapter is now demonstrating how to manage for sage grouse on a meaningful scale. Working on TNC’s Crooked Creek Ranch, where sage grouse nesting success was acceptable, but the rate of chick survival was poor. We have partnered with Idaho Fish & Game to improve the habitat in a number of ways in this instance by increasing the composition of forbs. Forbs are broad-leaved herbaceous plants important during the first ten days of the grouse chick’s life for the nutrition provided by insects, especially beetles and ants that they attract. Geographically broader application of this management faced the challenge of the expense of the seed mixtures that included sufficient forb seed. The Chapter applied for and received a grant from the Office of Species Conservation to create and administer the Grouse Habitat Restoration Fund. The fund cost shares with property owners to make the more expensive seed mix affordable, distributes information about the program and encourages landowners to voluntarily improve sage grouse habitat. With the implementation of this program more forbs can be established in sage grouse habitats across the state of Idaho, and an increase in chick survival should follow.

Quail Unlimited projects have benefited sage grouse in California and Colorado. In partnership with the Bishop Field office of BLM, a broad-based group of stakeholders has drafted a conservation plan to preclude listing and maintain a healthy sage grouse population. They will cut young pinyon-juniper trees encroaching on known breeding habitat, build guzzlers in brood rearing habitats where habitat is suitable but distribution is limited by availability of water, continue radio telemetry study and habitat mapping to identify crucial seasonal habitats for future conservation actions, monitor utility lines to determine if anti-raptor perching devices may reduce predation, inform recreational visitors on how to enjoy sage grouse habitat with minimal impact and new builders on how to minimize their impact on surrounding sage grouse habitat. These projects will serve to begin implementing the conservation plan, monitor success of the actions, identify areas for future conservation actions, involve youth in an active and positive role, benefit the community, and educate current and future users of sage grouse lands.

With the BLM Craig district in Colorado, QU has established a project to increase the grass and forb component and increase the vigor of the sagebrush canopy in known sage grouse brood rearing areas. Research has shown that sage grouse utilize new sage growth as their nearly exclusive winter diet. Much of the sage in this area is very old with little succulent new growth. This project has restored over 4,000 acres of decadent sage through brush beating (mowing) and chemical treatment of selected sites in a patchwork design.

Members of the North American Falconers’ Association and other members of the falconry community have contributed valuable information on critical winter ranges used by sage grouse. This information has been provided at least for large areas of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The National Wild Turkey Federation, with their Western Plan, supports habitat improvements that benefit not only wild turkeys but grouse and other game and non-game species as well.

Recently, the Western Governors’ Association published a compilation of examples by states of sage grouse conservation projects, several of which have significant involvement by sportsmen and their organizations.

In addition to volunteering time, money and labor on specific projects, sportsmen have been effectively engaged in efforts to resolve resource conflicts involving sage grouse and other wildlife through support of collaborative efforts with other stakeholders. Nowhere has that been more evident recently than with discussions about energy development and its relationship to sage grouse and other wildlife that share the same habitat.

With support from the BLM, the Izaak Walton League initiated two years ago a series of facilitated meetings among ranchers, the energy industry and sportsman groups. The reports of those meetings are available on the League’s web site at www.iwla.org. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership supported a similar meeting in New Mexico with the assistance of the National Commission on Energy Policy. The purpose of the meetings was to improve understanding on all sides of the issues, limitations and interests of our respective communities, and most importantly to begin to craft solutions to conflicts that occur when our interests overlap on the landscape. We made useful progress at those meetings and built a network for further communication that continues today.

Related to these discussions, we have used other opportunities to more broadly engage with the energy industry. Representatives of the Boone & Crockett Club, the Wildlife Management Institute and I have made presentations at the National Petroleum Forum and Fluid Minerals Conference about the outcomes of our facilitated meetings and the issues of concern to sportsmen. In addition, I spoke on similar issues to the National Energy Council comprised of state government representatives. These forums have provided useful opportunities to explain the concerns of the wildlife community and to make clear our desire to find mutually acceptable solutions to the inevitable conflicts.

In early November, the Wildlife Working Group of the National Wind Coordinating Committee will meet here in D.C. We will discuss issues of impacts from wind energy development on grouse in a session that will address the affects of tall structures. As pressure increases to expand and incentives are provided for renewable energy development, conflicts over construction and especially siting of wind facilities will increase. Prairie grouse species appear averse to such facilities. Although additional research is needed to confirm preliminary data, wildlife experts warn of significant population impacts where wind development occurs in proximity to important grouse habitat.

In addition to the many cooperative efforts with industry, a working group comprised of the American Sportfishing Association, International Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, Izaak Walton League of America, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership led by the Wildlife Management Institute, North American Grouse Partnership and Trout Unlimited, has met with senior Administration officials. We have made a number of suggestions regarding ways to avoid future impacts to fish and wildlife. For example, we have called for improved monitoring. To work effectively and provide answers about real impacts from land uses, monitoring must include not just species presence and abundance, but longer term measures of whether they survive, reproduce and sustain viable populations. We need to affirm Multiple Use Management of Federal Lands. We need specific policy criteria developed to assist federal land managers in identifying and protecting high resource value places and specific guidance to ensure that such a review and subsequent action takes place in a timely manner. Federal land managers should make decisions carefully when they may constrain the government’s flexibility to control activities that prove to pose risks to important fish, wildlife, and water resources. BLM should undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of stipulations to determine if they are accomplishing their intended purpose. Adequate financial resources for reclamation should be a part of the cost of doing business on federal lands.

To be sure, these recommendations have been considered and adopted to some extent and we commend the agencies for that work. We think we can all do more.

Commitment to do more

All these projects, meetings and collaborative processes involve considerable time and expense contributed by individuals and their organizations. Yet, our organizations and the individual sportsmen involved in all theses efforts on behalf of sage grouse are committed to programs and resolution to conflicts that best meet our Nation’s needs and those of the various stakeholders. Above all we are resolute in our commitment to sustaining, and wherever possible restoring, sage grouse populations. We will contribute expertise, time, money and labor individually and collectively within our respective limits.

Recommendations

What follows are a range of suggestions, made by sportsmen, to improve conditions for wildlife. We have suggested authorizing royalty reductions or credits to those entities with existing and future federal energy development leases, with proceeds used to enable federal land lessees to protect or enhance our nation’s natural resources. The purpose is to provide financial support to monitor, enhance and secure populations of prairie grouse and other natural resources. We are currently developing a North American Grouse Management Plan that identifies specific actions which can be used to protect or improve grouse habitats. Among these actions are habitat and population monitoring, trapping and relocating grouse from healthy populations, modified livestock grazing and watering systems, changing the season of use and density of energy developments, and enrolling lands in the suite of conservation programs available through USDA and the FWS.

The Conservation Assessment of Greater Sage Grouse and Sagebrush Habitats is a good baseline, and some states have developed or are developing conservation plans that should identify positive management opportunities. However, improvements must occur on the ground to achieve real progress.

From our perspective in discussions with other stakeholders, we would encourage increased coordination and cooperation among all stakeholders. Opportunities include developing a workable plan to respond [adapt] based on returning monitoring data in a timely way -- not just for energy development but for other land uses as well; research designed to assess if, how, where BMPs and stipulations are accomplishing their purpose; a process for determining when/where certain land uses are not compatible with sage grouse and/or other high priority resources – within or apart from formal management plans; and the means to provide an effective opportunity to assess potential conflicts prior to management actions.

There are opportunities to coordinate related activities and leverage and prioritize limited resources by;

1. Identifying information needs. Are we measuring the right things? Are we using the data we’re collecting? What is the relationship between what we measure and actual population responses? We need to learn from what we are doing – see appended letter regarding a proposal by Questar.

2. Identifying conservation actions that can be implemented now, such as pre-development assessment, identification of protected areas, and restoration programs.

3. Developing a realistic budget to meet the information needs as part of a funding needs package that addresses amounts and potential sources of funds – federal, state and private. We especially need to understand and make visible the real needs of land management agencies to meet mandated requirements as well as implementing sage grouse conservation measures.

4. Considering creation of a ‘Wildlife Conservation Partnership Council’. The Council would be chartered to raise the profile of wildlife conservation, the values of wildlife to the country's heritage and economy and to encourage public/private partnerships. More specifically, the Council could advise on issues that arise at the intersection of economic development and wildlife resources with the purpose of finding innovative ways to enhance both of these values so important to the country. This could focus significant human and fiscal resources to resolving some of those conflicts.

This past February, while recognizing that many land uses that can compete with grouse will and need to continue, several specific actions concerning sage grouse conservation were suggested including:

1. Identify, with State agencies and private conservation interests, all high value Sage Grouse range.

2. Apply available best management practices for any development on public lands through appropriate agency authority.

3. Provide adequate funding to monitor populations and habitat conditions throughout sage grouse range.

4. Support completion and implementation of the North American Grouse Management Plan and its linkage to State conservation plans, and consider legislative authority for the Plan through a mechanism similar to the N.A. Waterfowl Conservation Act.

In some places and at some times over-utilization by livestock grazing remains a challenge to successful reproduction and population recovery for upland gamebirds as well as other grassland and shrubland species. Poor range conditions for many reasons, combined with herbicide and mechanical treatments carried out with the intention of reducing all plants except grasses on rangelands, have had impacts on endemic wildlife populations throughout North America. Although conservation programs allow for reimbursement of prescribed burning expenses, no allowance is made to create the necessary fuel, for example through grazing deferment, for conservation success. State and federal programmatic and tax incentives could be applied to reduce grazing intensity in areas of high conservation priority.

The Grassland Reserve Program is the one USDA program that not only provides restoration and easement dollars but also restricts all forms of habitat fragmentation for the term of the agreement. This program is the first to recognize that a number of developments and structures can measurably reduce the conservation value of a property. This program needs increased funding.

We should consider expanding annual incentive payment options available for modified grazing systems under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). At present EQIP offers only up to three years of annual incentive payments to farmers and ranchers who choose to enroll in the program. While this time period may be sufficient for some land management practices, it does not provide the long-term incentive necessary for many of the land management practices available under EQIP. We are particularly interested in the gains that could derive from modifying EQIP to enable producers to receive annual incentive payments for up to 10 years for land management practices benefiting prairie grouse. Many producers who support prairie grouse populations have indicated that annual incentive payments throughout an extended EQIP contract period would attract them to the program.

In highly fragmented or small land ownership areas, we should consider financial incentives for neighboring landowners to form wildlife cooperatives, whereby state and federal taxes are abated to provide a public benefit. Many landowners are eager to enter into such wildlife cooperatives.

In conclusion, there are unavoidable and serious ecological consequences should human development, in many forms, continue unchecked on public lands, and financial investment is required to conserve and restore wildlife habitats. All of our private efforts to conserve sage grouse and their habitats will be insufficient to the task if our policies and programs do not provide for and encourage effective conservation measures. Government policies must address cumulative impacts and establish landscape level ecological goals and fragmentation ceilings. We believe that Congress and the Administration can and should tap the resources within our community to the benefit of all interests. It will take the commitment of funds, effectively delivered programs, careful planning and most importantly implementation of real habitat management to forestall further loss of sage grouse and other wildlife resources, and the consequences associated with such outcomes.

Attachments:

1. Letter to Questar concerning their proposal for year around operations in Pinedale, WY.

2. Letter to Secretary Norton on royalty relief to fund resource conservation.

3. Letter to Secretary Venneman concerning Farm Bill conservation program enhancement.

4. Comments submitted by North American Grouse Partnership regarding proposed sage grouse listing under ESA.