Dead Sage Grouse Tested Positive for West Nile
Protection for bird under Endangered Species Act again may be sought
MEAD GRUVER / AP 11aug03
Wyoming Checks Mines for West Nile Source - NY Times 28oct03
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Three dead sage grouse from northeast Wyoming have tested positive for West Nile virus, raising the possibility that someone could again seek to get the bird protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A University of Montana researcher studying sage grouse in Campbell County submitted four birds that had been fitted with radio transmitters to the State Veterinary Lab in Laramie for testing, Department of Health spokesman Ross Doman said Monday.
Whether West Nile was what killed the infected birds remains to be seen. "It's remotely possible that it's kind of coincidental," said Donal O'Toole, director of the veterinary lab. "There are several additional tests we need to do to lock in the diagnosis."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received numerous petitions in recent years to protect sage grouse under federal laws.
In June, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved a plan for managing sage grouse by focusing on protecting habitat. An indirect goal was to prevent listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Jill Morrison, of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said her group will not seek listing for the sage grouse but feels certain someone will do that if West Nile is what killed the birds.
"The concern is all this standing water from coal-bed methane. There is so much more water out there, thus there is so much more mosquitoes, thus there is so much more West Nile," she said.
Drilling for coal-bed methane removes groundwater along with the gas. Federal regulations now require the water to be collected in ponds so potentially toxic minerals do not get into streams and rivers.
"It's definitely another nail in the coffin for sage grouse, because they've already got so many things that are affecting them, and then you just add one more to it," Morrison said.
Morrison's group is one of several that filed lawsuits this spring after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released its plan for coal-bed methane development in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana.
Clait E. Braun, a sage grouse expert, said West Nile could be a serious problem for small populations of sage grouse — especially small populations with little genetic diversity. But he said large populations face little long-term danger because survivors will pass on immunity to their offspring.
"Yes, some birds are going to die," Braun said. "But if you look at it this way, roughly 40 percent to 60 percent of the sage grouse alive are going to be dead at this time next year. That's normal. Sage grouse have a high mortality rate."
He said northeast Wyoming has a large enough sage grouse population that he is not concerned. Anyone who seeks Endangered Species Act listing because of West Nile, he said, is "on very thin ground."
"They can use anything they want," he said. "But I think they really need to go with science, and I haven't seen the science yet that West Nile virus is going to be a major factor for any bird species."
Jason Marsden, with Wyoming Conservation Voters, said the Fish and Wildlife Service often acknowledges requests to list species but usually concludes that it is unable to do so due to higher priorities.
"It's a fancy way of saying the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have enough money to do its job," he said.
As for listing sage grouse: "Whether it would be the extra push over the finish line to get it listed, I would be skeptical."
The dead birds were found by Brett Walker, a University of Montana graduate student studying how sage grouse are affected by coal-bed methane development. The birds were among 15 with radio transmitters.
Game and Fish Department spokesman Jeff Obrecht pointed out that five dead sage grouse from a similar study in the central Wyoming have tested free of West Nile virus. And none of about 60 sage grouse being studied in southwest Wyoming's Green River Basin have been submitted for testing.
"It's just a raw deal that highly esteemed native bird like the sage grouse would have be subjected to an exotic virus," he said. "But we've dealt with other exotic nuisances in North America and managed to endure and certainly hope so with the sage grouse too."
He said the presence of West Nile will not be an emergency for sage grouse hunters this fall. All the same, he urged hunters not to eat internal organs, such as gizzards, and to cook birds thoroughly.
source: http://www.dailycamera.com/bdc/state_news/article/0,1713,BDC_2419_2176041,00.html 28oct03