25 Nov 2009, 10:05pm
by admin

Grouse vs. Fences

by the Baker City Herald Editorial Board, November 11, 2009 [here]

The results of a scientific study released a couple weeks ago suggest that on the ornithological intelligence scale, sage grouse are closer to the dodo bird than to the parrot.

The sage grouse in Western Wyoming are, anyway.

This study would have really tickled us, except that it could inform a decision that would have a dramatic, and detrimental, effect on ranchers in Eastern Oregon and across much of the West.

The federal government, as it has been at various times over the past several years, is trying to decide whether the sage grouse, of which there are populations in several states, should be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

The feds’ decision is significant. If the chicken-size bird is given federal protection, then some ranchers could be forced to stop grazing cattle on public lands that biologists deem critical habitat for sage grouse.

Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have laid most of the blame for the decline in sage grouse populations on the conversion of sagebrush habitat to such things as housing and agriculture.

That’s a logical explanation — the bird, as its name implies, depends almost entirely on sagebrush: for food, nesting habitat and protection from predators.

Which brings us to the Wyoming study, which was conducted in 2007.

Researchers concluded that during a seven-month period, as many as 146 sage grouse might have died because they flew into a 4.7-mile section of barbed-wire fence near Farson, Wyo.

We have no reason to question those statistics.

What worries us, though, is the prospect of federal officials citing the Wyoming study as evidence that sage grouse need the powerful protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The source of our skepticism is this: Barbed-wire fences have been widespread in the West for close to a century, yet even experts from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies wrote in an assessment that sage grouse populations have been relatively stable since dropping substantially from about 1960 through the mid-1980s.

The obvious question, then, is why, if barbed-wire fences are such deadly obstacles for sage grouse, the birds have managed to not only survive, but for periods thrive, in a region where tens of thousands of miles of such fence have been in place for many decades?

Perhaps the federal government’s bird experts can answer that question.

If they cite barbed-wire fences as justification for listing sage grouse, we hope that answer is backed with convincing evidence.



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