- Endangered and threatened animals that may be impacted by the Keystone XL pipeline
- Greater sage grouse video
- A grouse’s love song may be imperiled
Greater sage grouse video
A grouse’s love song may be imperiled
WASHINGTON — The Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries is often described as environmentally controversial because of its potential to harm the Ogallala Aquifer and to create spills along the route. But environmentalists now are pointing to the pipeline’s potential to hurt the greater sage grouse, a bird that is a symbol of the Western sage brush ecosystem.
Biologists say the species, which has been a candidate for the endangered species list for two years, may see further declines in its population because of pipeline construction.
The greater sage grouse, the largest grouse in North America, is found in 11 states. South Dakota is at the edge of its distribution; monitoring by the South Dakota wildlife agency has shown the sage grouse population to be decreasing slightly in the state.
The Keystone XL pipeline’s route would go through one of the grouse’s important habitats: Butte and Harding counties in the northwestern part of South Dakota. President Barack Obama has delayed a decision on the pipeline until 2013. Experts say pipeline construction would accelerate the disappearance of local sage grouse groups and warn that the bird may eventually disappear from the area.
According to biologists, construction noises, especially road noises, would likely interrupt the birds’ traditional mating ritual. Every spring, male sage grouses return to the same breeding grounds, known as leks, and start their elaborate courting ceremonies: The males strut around and puff up big vocal sacs on their chests to sing subtle love songs to the females they are trying to woo. Some of these sites are believed to have been around for thousands of years.
University of California, Davis researcher Jessica Blickley and Associate Professor Gail Patricelli, leading experts on greater sage grouse communication behavior, found that stress levels of returning males are elevated by industrial noises such as continuous drilling and trucks.
In a three-year experiment that began in 2006, they recorded industrial noises from the Pinedale area in Wyoming and played them from speakers placed on the edge of eight leks in Fremont County, Wyoming. The number of male sage grouse gathering on leks declined up to 73 percent in the first year,Patricelli said.
“We were surprised to find that the impact of the noise happened pretty quickly,” she said.
The study also showed that loud construction noises would mask the males’ love songs, and possibly the sound of mothers communicating with their young and predators approaching, all of which may reduce the number of the grouse.
TransCanada, the Canadian company that proposed the Keystone XL project, has said it would create a three-mile buffer zone around active leks, restrict construction during certain times of the year and restore sage grouse habitats. But experts argue that the best mitigation plan for the greater sage grouse is to adjust the route again so that construction can be as far away from the birds as possible.
Pat Deibert, national sage grouse coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it was “incredibly difficult” to restore the bird’s habitat after pipeline companies clear a piece of land for construction. The greater sage grouse is known for its picky diet — the bird feeds almost exclusively on sage brush. Deibert said various experiments have shown that it takes 30 to 50 years and lots of money to restore sage brush because of seeding problems.
South Dakota is in discussions with TransCanada to minimize the pipeline construction’s potential damage to the bird, according to John Kanta, wildlife manager at the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks. He said the company seemed “agreeable to do something” such as setting aside funds for the birds, though it indicated no intention of adjusting the proposed route.
Kent Jensen, a biologist at South Dakota State University, warned that the state’s sage grouse population would respond with higher mortality and lower reproductive rates if the company executes the current plan and clears a large portion of sage brush in the two counties. He said the birds would be forced to travel elsewhere in search of food and nesting ground, pitting them against other birds.
“If you displace animals from one place to another, there tends to be conflicts,” Jensen said. “From the area that is impacted, they likely could just disappear, if the impact is large enough.”
Experts say the sage grouse population in South Dakota is very important because the state doesn’t have many of the birds to begin with. A robust sage grouse population indicates that other animals in the sage brush ecosystem such as pygmy rabbits and Brewer’s sparrows are prospering as well.
“They represent many things that are going out on the landscape,” according to Tom Christiansen, grouse biologist at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “If sage grouse were to disappear, there probably would be a lot of other species and habitats that would be gone as well.”