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Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 21.3


read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] _ vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.


The Canary in the Mine

The West Nile virus season is well underway. West Nile virus (WNV) is a mosquito-borne infection that can cause encephalitis (inflammation of brain tissue) and/or meningitis (swelling of the tissue that encloses the brain and spinal cord). Native to parts of the Old World, WNV was first detected in North America in the summer of 1999, in New York City, NY; a dead crow at the Bronx Zoo was one of the first harbingers of what was to come. Within three months, WNV had spread to Connecticut and New Jersey, leaving tens of thousands of dead birds in its wake. Over the subsequent four years, it has continued to spread across the continent.

Wild bird mortality is an accurate indicator of the extent of WNV, and it continues to provide an early warning system for the emergence of the virus in new locations. The National Wildlife Health Center (part of the USGS) is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn the current geographic extent of WNV, to understand how it moves between birds, mosquitoes, and humans, and to predict future movements of the virus. Scientists are surveying wild birds, with simultaneous collection of mosquitoes, to detect the presence of WNV.


An example of such analysis is that of the Lower Colorado River corridor in central Arizona. Last summer scientists at the Southwest Biological Science Center, Colorado Plateau Field Station, and Northern Arizona University studied irrigated land and vegetation foraging areas, riparian systems, vegetation foraging areas, migrant warblers (most likely to be infected), mosquito vectors, and concluded that WNV would have the greatest transmission potential to birds in the central region of Arizona, with the highest human risk predicted to be in the environs of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Such studies continue this season.



Birds and West Nile Virus

The Audubon Society is one organization especially concerned about the possible short- and long-term consequences of the loss of so many birds to WNV. Some species of native birds, e.g., American Crows, continue to suffer high mortality. Scientists are particularly worried about what will happen in California—the endangered species capital of the

continental United States—as the virus entrenches itself throughout that state. The Society posts current research such as surveys of resident birds in the UK for the presence of several virus strains common in Africa (to and from where many UK migrants travel annually).


The surveys have uncovered a surprisingly high prevalence of antibodies to WNV: more than 60 percent of the individuals of 30 different species were found to possess antibodies to a strain of WNV very similar to the "New York strain" (as the strain spreading through the Americas has come to be called). The sample of birds included many juveniles that had yet to migrate; thus, the authors surmise that the virus is being carried into the UK by migratory birds. Because there is no evidence that birds are dying in large numbers in the UK due to WNV, and because the birds carrying antibodies (including crows and magpies) were asymptomatic, the authors speculate that either the specific strain of WNV in the UK is less virulent than the one circulating in North and Central America, or that UK birds have actually been exposed to this virus for many years and have evolved immunity.



A Warning in the West

In a recent issues of Bioscience, editor Timothy M. Beardsley characterized research by Peter P. Marra and his colleagues that West Nile virus could push already threatened bird species over the edge to extinction.


West Nile virus began its season early this year, with infected dead birds recorded in April in California. Indications are that the pathogen will hit the state hard in the coming months, moving north as it infects mosquitoes and birds in farming country. This year, its fifth in North America, could well see it complete its march across the lower 48 by penetrating Oregon and Washington. It is not hard to imagine the agent hitching a ride from the West Coast to Hawaii with a mosquito lurking in some dark corner on a ship. The likely effects on the endangered endemic birds of Hawaii are not pleasant to contemplate.

Press attention understandably focuses mainly on human illness and death associated with West Nile virus—over 250 people in the United States died last year from its effects, and more suffer from its long-term neurological consequences. But… the toll on wildlife is far larger.

…Unfortunately, the options for dealing with the menace are few. A vaccine that is available to protect horses has demonstrated some efficacy in other animals in tests, but broadcasting vaccines to wildlife is usually impractical. Molecular biology offers little help, for similar reasons. Vigorous mosquito control in conjunction with improved animal surveillance is the main hope for limiting West Nile's effects in the foreseeable future. Yet many states' budgets are inadequate to conduct proper surveillance; some have simply stopped recording dead birds. Border controls that could prevent the importation of infected animals and mosquitoes are likewise lax.

Failure to adequately fund surveillance is surely shortsighted. West Nile is unlikely to be a unique or even a particularly special case. All biological intuition points to the probability of a troublesome procession of unwelcome invasive pathogens that will exploit the expansion of global trade and travel in coming decades. The economic consequences for agriculture alone could be massive. Efficient wildlife monitoring systems, expanded research on transmission, and stepped-up emergency preparedness efforts instituted now will repay their costs manifold during plagues still to come….

Source: Bioscience, Vol. 54 (May2004):379


Birds vs. Oil

Todd Wilkinson recently reported in the Christian Science Monitor of new threats to the survival of the sage grouse, once common across the West. The numbers of these native resident game birds, known for their distinctive spring mating dance called "strutting," have dwindled dramatically. Reduced to scattered clusters in 11 states, the total grouse population today is one-tenth the number that existed 200 years ago, and only half as large as in the '70s. Some biologists believe that without federal protection, the bird could be extinct in 50 years.

A variety of causes are blamed for the bird's decline in the West: livestock grazing, habitat encroachment by exotic plants, ATV recreation, new homes, and possibly the West Nile virus—and the loss of habitat.


In a vast panorama of scruffy land near the scenic gateway to the Wind River Mountains, two natural treasures exist. One has collected in pools beneath the surface; the other forages among the sagebrush from which it takes its name.

Hundreds—soon to be thousands—of oil and gas wells pound the earth outside Pinedale, drilling for a natural bounty that is bringing much-needed revenue to a recovering state that once served as a backdrop to the Marlboro Man.

But the energy boom spawned by the Bush administration, conservationists say, comes at the expense of the greater sage grouse, whose last robust population lies directly in the path of the drilling.

"This is a robbery of national proportion," says librarian turned activist Linda Baker, who commutes to work every day past the beehive of drill pads and pipelines in the Jonah Natural Gas Field and equally rich Pinedale Anticline. "It's as far from balanced public land management and multiple use as you can get."

Hoping to slow the pace of development, Ms. Baker wants the greater sage grouse to receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Yet natural-resource industry groups argue that listing the bird would only transform it into "the spotted owl" of the high plains and harm both the grouse and the industry.

"Even if sound science shows someday that the greater sage grouse is threatened by possible extinction," says Jim Sims of Partnership for the West, "imposing the regulatory straightjacket of the Endangered Species Act on this situation would be the absolute worst thing for the bird and for the people of the West."

Earlier this month, however, the plumed avian won a surprising ally. Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), who has applauded energy development in Wyoming, joined New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in asking the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to impose a temporary freeze on the leasing of new wells until all of the impacts have been studied.…

In 2002, the Bush administration set a new record for the number of oil and gas permits it processed in the West and Alaska, and the mark was surpassed last year. BLM staffers across the West say they are overwhelmed with processing drilling applications but insist the buffer zones they have proscribed to protect grouse breeding areas are adequate.

To others like Baker, the green light to drill in the diminishing sage grouse habitat serves as a barometer for the impact of progress on a variety of wildlife—including the world's longest pronghorn antelope migration corridor. "When people return to this place after having been gone for a while and see what is happening, their hearts sink," she says….

Earlier in June, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies completed a biological overview of sage grouse and their habitat on 770,000 square miles. While pronouncing that grouse numbers have "stabilized" since the 1990s, the panel of two dozen scientists nonetheless painted a dim outlook.

Retired grouse expert Clait Braun, who worked for 30 years with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says the report's estimate of between 140,000 and 250,000 birds is exaggerated. "They've created grouse on paper that do not exist in the wild, particularly in Wyoming and Montana [which have the highest remnant concentrations]," he says. "No one wants to face the real numbers because it's political dynamite."

Mr. Braun ticks off a list of fractured grouse populations—in California, Utah, Washington, New Mexico, the Dakotas—that he says are steadily headed toward "winking out." By 2030, he predicts the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado, a subspecies, will be extinct; by 2050, he believes the greater sage grouse—if current trends persist—will be so reduced in number and lost habitat that it will never recover.…

"Numbers of sage grouse don't mean much unless you view them within the context of what they are confronting on the ground," says Peter Aengst with the Wilderness Society. "Unless we safeguard the habitat now, it's going to be a hundred times more difficult, and a hundred times more expensive, to try and fix."

Source: "Sage Grouse of Western Plains seen as Next `Spotted Owl." Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 96 (25 June 2004).


Sage Grouse Saga

Tom Kenworthy reported on the sage grouse controversy for USA Today.


The greater sage grouse, looking much like an oversize quail, is declining in numbers, and federal scientists are weighing whether to put it on the endangered species list. If that happens, it's likely to mean significant restrictions on energy development across a huge swath of the West.

Much of the bird's habitat overlaps with the nation's prime gas drilling territory, in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah. Grouse advocates argue that the intensive development threatens nesting areas and is pushing the bird toward extinction—a claim that could significantly disrupt the Bush administration's push for a gas industry boom in the West.…

The fight over the grouse is about more than a bird. It symbolizes a larger dispute over the future of the West and the region's vast network of public land. Many expect the bird to touch off an ecological battle not seen since the feud over the northern spotted owl in the 1990s ended up devastating the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest.…

First described by Lewis and Clark during their exploration of the Western frontier 200 years ago, the grouse was once plentiful on the vast sagebrush plains of 12 Western states. But its population has declined sharply in the past few decades, dropping from 2 million or more to under 500,000. While it's impossible to gauge just how much the grouse's endangered species listing could cost the energy industry, many experts, including Interior Secretary Gale Norton, say the economic impact could be enormous. "The sage grouse occupies nearly 12 times as much land as the northern spotted owl," Norton said recently.

A federal judge instigated an uproar in 1989 when he issued an injunction on federal timber sales to protect many forests where spotted owls live.

Millions of acres were set aside for the owls, and thousands of jobs were lost in the woods and in sawmills as the timber industry adjusted to downsizing.

The lesson isn't forgotten. Stakes are high enough that energy development supporters have begun a major effort to block the sage grouse from making it on the endangered species list. The campaign is being waged by a nonprofit organization called Partnership for the West. Based in Golden, Colo., the group represents oil, gas, mining and ranching interests.

In an internal memo that was obtained by environmental groups, the coalition has outlined a comprehensive campaign to discredit the grouse's endangered listing. Among the tactics: "Unleash grassroots opposition to a listing, thus providing some cover to the political leadership" in the Bush administration.

A sage grouse listing, concluded Executive Director Jim Sims in an e-mail to supporters, "would cause economic disruption that would make the Northern Spotted Owl decision look minuscule by comparison."

…Six years ago, the huge Jonah field south of Pinedale had 58 producing gas wells. Today, there are 600, and a federal Bureau of Land Management proposal calls for 3,100 more. That would average out to a gas well every 10 acres.…

The energy development around Pinedale overlaps with an important migratory route for big game such as antelope and mule deer, and some of the best grouse habitat in the west.

A ground-nesting bird, the grouse lives at elevations of 4,000 to 9,000 feet and is almost completely dependent on sagebrush for food and protection from predators. Sagebrush once covered about 155 million acres of the West, but much of it has been lost to cattle grazing, farming, housing developments and fire.

The sage grouse is unusually sensitive to human activity, says Pat Deibert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service biologist. Deibert is leading the team that will determine by next winter whether the bird should be added to the list of endangered and threatened species.…

Just as the northern spotted owl was dependent on so-called old-growth forests with their stands of towering, ancient trees, the sage grouse is dependent on increasingly rare old-growth sagebrush, says grouse specialist Ben Deeble of the National Wildlife Federation.…

With a number of state and local groups pushing hard to develop sage grouse conservation strategies, the National Wildlife Federation opposes a federal endangered species listing. But other groups take the position that only federal intervention can stem the decline.…

Source: "Battle brewing over sage grouse protection," USA Today, July 17, 2004.


Grouse Conservation?

The Sage Grouse Conservation Task Force was organized and is coordinated by the Partnership for the West, which describes itself as "an alliance of more than 375 companies, associations, coalitions and individuals who collectively employ or represent more than one million citizens across America in the following sectors: farm/ranching, coal, timber/wood products, small businesses, utilities, hard rock mining, oil and gas, construction, manufacturing, property rights advocates, education proponents, recreational access advocates, county government advocates, local, state and federal elected officials, grassroots advocates and others." The Task Force is working to convince federal officials to allow Western states to continue to lead sage grouse conservation efforts, rather than impose the Endangered Species Act. Director Jim Sims issued a press release in May 2004.


"Those who want to see a federal takeover of state and local conservation efforts don't really care about the sage grouse as a species. If they did, they would be fighting for [sic] an ESA listing, which perversely discourages active conservation measures," Sims said. "These fringe activists really want to use this law to take away private property, run farmers off their land, stop all natural resource development, raise energy prices and turn back the clock on progress in the West.

"In fact, some of these extremists even went so far this week as to publish an internal science and biology assessment of the sage grouse, produced by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, that is still in the midst of a double-blind peer review prior to its submission to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a serious breach of protocol and shows that many of these groups don't really care about conserving this species, only locking away land in the West from its people."

Sims said that the Task Force is working on several tracks to ensure that state and local officials continue to lead conservation efforts for the sage grouse, including the following:

  1. Ensure that federal officials are able to make a decision on an ESA listing based on sound science and reliable biological estimates, "not on the trash science so often pushed by fringe environmental activists";
  2. Assist states and Western Governors in collecting information on current and planned conservation strategies by both public and private entities;
  3. Develop innovative conservation strategies that can be implemented to conserve sage grouse populations if science and biology estimates show that the bird is in danger of extinction; and
  4. Help the people of the West and elected officials, understand the severe social, cultural and economic consequences on the West of an ESA listing of the sage grouse.…


Studying the Issue

In June 2004 "Conservation Assessment of Greater Sage Grouse and Sagebrush Habitats" was released by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The report noted that the historic range of the sage grouse included Washington, Oregon, eastern California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, western Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Sage grouse are no longer found in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and British Columbia.


…The distribution of greater sage-grouse has contracted, most notably along the northern and northwestern periphery and in the center of the historic range.…

A recent sagebrush die-off in Utah (in the Uintah Basin) has affected approximately one million acres of sagebrush habitat—600,000 acres of those are directly
associated with wildlife. It is believed that this is the only major die-off of sagebrush since white settlers arrived in the area in the mid-1800s. At this time, the elevation of the large die-off of sagebrush seems to be below 7,000 feet and involves mainly Bureau of Land Management land. The die-off is thought to be a result of the continuing stress on the plants due to the 5-year drought ongoing in Utah. In addition, most of the sagebrush is made up of older plants, with little new growth being found. If this drought continues, it is believed that next year sagebrush located at higher elevations (7,000 feet and above) will suffer a similar loss. In Utah, higher elevations of sagebrush are found on USDA-Forest Service lands.



Further Studying the Issue

In July 2004 the eleven western governors issued a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking special protected status not be granted to the greater sage grouse—until local groups finish studying the issue.


"In the West, we are witnessing an unprecedented conservation effort," the governors said in their letter.

Energy producers are concerned that more protection for the sage grouse would hamper drilling in states like Wyoming and Colorado. The Rocky Mountain region has become a key area for natural gas drilling, especially the methane-rich natural gas contained deep within underground coal beds.

"We've been engaging in a discussion with the western governors," Ken Wonstolen, general counsel of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said.

Drilling activity is already limited around the bird's breeding areas for several months in the spring. Any further restrictions could put a serious damper on energy drilling, industry leaders said.

"Rushing toward a listing in advance of a rangewide, strategic plan could be detrimental to the conservation efforts that currently take place on private lands," the governors said.


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