Numbers of sage grouse in Oregon dropping

Bend, Ore. (AP) – The Bureau of Land Management is using some
stimulus money to study the effect of wind farms on a dwindling
sage grouse population in Central Oregon.

BLM spokesman Michael Campbell said the agency hopes to lessen
or eliminate any impact.

The agency would hire people to tag sage grouse in areas where
wind farms are proposed, and track the birds’ movements to figure
out where turbines could be located. Contracts have not yet been
awarded.

The BLM has no wind farms on its Oregon land but has received
three applications. There are turbines on private land.

Sage grouse numbers in Oregon last year were at their lowest in
a decade but may be rebounding in some areas.

“2008 was not a good year for sage grouse, there’s no question,”
said Christian Hagen, the sage grouse coordinator with the Oregon
Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It is difficult to gauge the population from spring counts. The
sage grouse population in 2008 fell to an estimated 20,000 to
25,000 birds in 2008, less than half the estimate from 2005.

There was talk of including the sage grouse on the federal
endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is
expected to visit the question again, Hagen said.

Hagen said reasons for the decline could be drought, invasive
plants and encroaching junipers, West Nile virus and human
activities.

The chicken-sized bird with its long, spiked tail feathers has
been called the spotted owl of the desert because its listing could
drastically change what people can do with the land.

What happens to sage grouse reflects problems with other species
in the high desert, said Eric Hess with the Seattle-based nonprofit
Sightline Institute, which recently released a report about sage
grouse numbers. And over time, the sage grouse has been on the
decline.

“The highs are getting a little lower, and the lows are getting
a little lower,” Hess said. “Human activity is playing a role in
disrupting the ecosystems out there, and we need to look at
different conservation measures.”

“It’s one of those classic situations of death by 1,000 cuts,”
said Brian Fenty of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert
Association.

State biologists have recommended siting wind turbines at least
three miles from sage grouse breeding habitat, but in March, Crook
County approved a proposed $220 million wind farm closer to the
birds.

Crook County Judge Mike McCabe said the birds don’t fly high
enough to hit the turbine propellers.

The Crook County project is also near a small population of the
birds on the edges of their range, he said, so it shouldn’t have
much of an impact.

Weather also can be a factor, said Hagen, with the Department of
Fish and Wildlife. A drought in 2007 and 2008 reduced the
vegetation that protects nests and the grasses and wildflowers
chicks eat.

Biologists found birds that had died from West Nile virus in
2006 and 2007, he said, but don’t know how widespread it is.

So far it looks like numbers in the center of the sage grouse’s
Oregon range, Malheur, Harney and Lake counties, are up a little,
he said.

Numbers from mating areas on the fringe of the birds’ range in
Deschutes and Crook counties, however, don’t look as promising, he
said.

For unknown reasons, the fringe areas tend to lag behind the
core areas, Hagen said, adding that he anticipates the numbers will
turn around locally in the next year or two.

“If things were to continue in a downward trend for a couple of
years, we would be concerned,” he said.

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