An isolated population of greater sage grouse in Jackson Hole is either an irrelevant cluster or the species’ potential salvation, sides say in a fight over the bird’s habitat.
That disagreement, among others, prevented members of two local state working groups from recommending protection of a “connectivity area” between the Jackson Hole and Green River sage grouse populations. The Upper Snake River Basin Sage-grouse Working Group in Jackson Hole is worried its greater sage grouse flock — last counted at 163 cocks and an unknown number of hens and chicks — might fade away because of its small size.
Hope lies in protecting a corridor to the larger populations, a concept the Jackson Hole group backed two weeks ago. But a counterpart group in the neighboring Green River Basin refused to go along.
The tiff is one of many being played out across Wyoming as the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team considers Thursday whether to recommend, for the first time in five years, changes to Gov. Matt Mead’s protective core area strategy. (See the sidebar for the latest on fast-moving parts of the debate.)
The Snake River group’s recommendation would protect a corridor of grouse habitat from the valley to the upper reaches of the Gros Ventre River valley where researchers recently documented mating leks. From there, it would be a short grouse flight over Kinky Creek Divide to the Green River.
“It’s not a big deal for a bird to fly over,” Wyoming Game and Fish sage grouse coordinator Tom Christensen said. Scientists believe there’s been a historic connection, but such flights have not been documented with radio-collar data.
Connecting the Jackson Hole population with others would make it more robust genetically, said Geneva Chong, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist in Jackson. She’s a member of the upper Snake River sage grouse group. All habitat that links the two populations is on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and that agency advocated for new protections.
“Any isolated population has a much greater chance of going extinct from a random event,” Chong said. “You don’t want to inbreed.” Connecting with other populations “essentially gives you a larger population size.”
The benefits of connectivity accrue not only to the Jackson Hole birds. It’s possible Jackson Hole sage grouse have a unique trait that could benefit other sage grouse. In fact, genetic testing shows a gene flow from Jackson Hole to the Green River, Chong said, but not the other way.
Jackson Hole sage grouse could, for example, become the first to develop a resistance to the threatening West Nile virus. Their habitat, which is wetter than other sage grouse country, might also become a refuge during long-term drought — if connectivity to the upper Green River population is secured.
“It’s a part of the give-and-take,” Chong said of the Teton County sage grouse population. “Having movement of genetics makes a stronger genetic pool. Generally, having a large genetic pool should be beneficial. Having that variety across a range of a species lets it persist over millennia.”
But the Green River group didn’t recommend a connectivity zone up the Green River to the Big Bend below Union Pass. That would have been its half of the corridor.
Newly documented mating leks and summer range show sage grouse occupying the upper Green River area — just a flight away from the Gros Ventre habitat in Jackson Hole. Biologists outlined the newly documented sage grouse activity two weeks ago. Some upper Green River committee members remained skeptical.
No confidence in data
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in the data they produced,” Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) told his fellow upper Green River panel members via telephone March 5. He opposed creating a connectivity zone on the core-area map. In a later interview, Sommers wondered whether the Jackson Hole population itself was properly labeled as a core area that should receive extra protection.
“I’m not really sure that’s core,” he said of Jackson Hole. “While I agree it’s a really interesting population, I think it really is a remnant population, an isolated deal.”
He had a larger gripe about the Forest Service, saying the agency is taking over state management of wildlife. The Bridger-Teton National Forest working group representatives recommended the connectivity zones.
“They want it to meet some sensitive species management,” Sommers said. “They feel like they are bound to manage populations of sensitive species so they are widely distributed. They’re trying to find places on the forest where they feel like they can make these definitions and call things core that really aren’t core habitat.
“This issue of sensitive species management by the Forest Service, to manage a population of wildlife to be widely distributed across the forest, is really usurping the state’s right to own wildlife,” he said. “When they do that, we react in the Legislature like we did with regard to the bighorn sheep in the Wyoming Range.”
In the recently completed lawmaking session, the Legislature passed a bill that would provide $37,500 for the removal of bighorn sheep from the Wyoming Range if the Bridger-Teton National Forest or a court curtails domestic sheep grazing.
Sommers grazes cattle from his Sublette County ranch on a Forest Service allotment in the Green River drainage where the Bridger-Teton proposed the connectivity zone. He’s subject to Forest Service rules that limit everything from when cattle come and go to how many cow-eating grizzly bears can be killed or moved away.
“The Forest Service is backing people into a corner,” Sommers said. “I think it’s a stretch for the Forest Service to consider that (high upper Green River area) as connectivity. The upper Green doesn’t fit. They’re not adjacent to core. There may or may not be a lek.”
Nobody has rigidly defined what protective measures might be adopted statewide for new connectivity areas, Game and Fish’s Christensen said. But they likely would be less restrictive than those afforded to core areas.
Forest bound to protect wildlife
The Bridger-Teton National Forest recommended the connectivity zones in the Gros Ventre and Green River drainages to meet elements of the National Forest Management Act, one of its guiding laws. The act requires managers to protect habitat to maintain viable populations of wildlife that are well distributed. “We could not meet that,” Bridger-Teton biologist Gary Hanvey said in an interview last week.
New documentation of sage grouse activity was part of the reason for the Forest Service’s connectivity proposal. “We wanted to be sure we had a corridor…for grouse to cross over and continue to add to the diversity to the population in Jackson,” said Pam Bode, resources staff officer for the Bridger-Teton. “We have discovered there are leks in the upper Green but the data are very new.”
Also, the Bridger-Teton, Medicine Bow national forests, the Thunder Basin National Grassland and six BLM districts in Wyoming are supplementing their sage grouse protections under a statewide environmental review. (The Greater Sage Grouse Land Use Plan and Amendments Environmental Impact Statement would also cover the Casper, Green River, Kemmerer, Newcastle, Pinedale, and Rawlins BLM districts.)
The BLM is scheduled to release the study this spring, with public comments accepted through the end of August. Resulting changes are intended to provide the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with assurances there are “adequate regulatory mechanisms” to ensure sage grouse survival across 11 western states. A court in 2010 said Fish and Wildlife needs such rules to keep the sage grouse off the threatened or endangered species list.
The BLM’s portions of the plan may hew closely to the governor’s core-area policy and map, according to memos directing the effort. The BLM also calls for identifying winter ranges, something the core-area map does not completely cover. After the statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team considers local recommendations Thursday, Gov. Mead decides on map changes.
The Bridger-Teton’s goal, and that of federal land managers across Wyoming, is to have similar maps. Those maps, along with the protections that come with core area and connectivity designations, are intended to help arrest the decline of sage grouse numbers that led to the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare them “warranted” for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Regardless of what a state map looks like, the Bridger-Teton will meet its conservation responsibilities, Bode said.
If the maps don’t agree, “we will manage the national forest with whatever decision is made in this EIS,” Bode said. Right now that means writing an EIS that would preserve the Gros Ventre-Green River connection for greater sage grouse.
This article was corrected to say the Sage Grouse Implementation Team will consider, not decide on, recommendations to change the core area on Thursday — Ed.
Below is the March 12 letter to Secretaries Sally Jewell and Tom Vilsack: