For Immediate Release: April 23, 2021
Jocelyn Leroux, Western Watersheds Project, (406) 960-4164, firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy, (202) 744-6459, email@example.com
OLYMPIA, Wash.—The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission today voted to upgrade Washington’s imperiled sage grouse population from “threatened” to “endangered” on the state Endangered Species List. Sage grouse have been listed as threatened in the state since 1998, but following years of precipitous declines and detrimental fires in Washington’s sagebrush habitat in the summer and fall of 2020, it was clear that the tenuous population needs greater protections.
“Washington’s sage grouse are on the brink of blinking out,” said Jocelyn Leroux of Western Watersheds Project. “By uplisting the sage grouse, the Fish and Wildlife Commission is recognizing the urgent need to act now to protect this iconic species, as well as Washington’s imperiled sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.”
Sage grouse are identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need under the Washington State Wildlife Action Plan and is a Priority Species under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Priority Habitat Species Program. Department scientists recommended in the draft periodic status review released in September 2020 that sage grouse receive endangered species status in the state.
In 2014 sage grouse numbered less than 1,000 in Washington. This dropped to 744 in 2016 and further to 676 in 2019. The sage grouse population reached about 770 birds in early 2020 before the fires devastated key habitat. Sage grouse in Washington occupy approximately 8 percent of their historic range and exist in small, isolated populations. Despite scientists not knowing exactly how many birds died in the 2020 fires and subsequent winters, there has been a noticeable decline. It is thought that the small reintroduced population in Lincoln County is functionally extinct following the 2020 fires.
“According to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Washington State population has suffered a 91% decrease over the past 55 years,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. “It further concludes that the population has little hope of survival unless the current course is dramatically altered and stronger conservation measures put in place.”
The 2020 fires were so devastating largely due to the proliferation of cheatgrass, an exotic annual grass, in Washington’s shrub-steppe ecosystem. Cheatgrass infestations proliferate as a result of heavy livestock grazing, and the species is prone to burning as it dries out early in the year, turning the landscape into a tinderbox. The widespread devastation of the 2020 fires burned approximately half of the sage grouse’s remaining range.
Sage grouse are declining across the west due to habitat degradation and loss from oil and gas development, livestock grazing and associated infrastructure, conversion of sagebrush-steppe to agricultural fields, and wildfire. Sage grouse habitat in Washington is on the traditional lands of the Yakama, Moses/Columbia, Spokane, Palouse, Okanagan, Wanapum, San Poil, Nespelem, Ktunaxa amakis, and Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla peoples.
“We applaud the Commission for recognizing the need for stronger conservation measures and hope that this signals a strong shift in sage grouse protections,” said Leroux.