Eco-briefs | Week of September 26, 2013

A sage grouse
Photo by Conservation Media

Sage grouse under Endangered Species Act review

The sage grouse, with pointed back feathers like a crown and yellow eyes, is under review for endangered species status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sage grouse, as their name suggests, occupy the sagebrush country of the northwest U.S. and some of southern Canada, an area highly contested among the sage grouse, ranchers and the oil and gas industry.

The House Natural Resources Committee held two full committee field hearings in Casper, Wyo., and Billings, Mont., to open discussion with the public about authorizing the Endangered Species Act to protect the sage grouse.

“It’s the uncertainty that surrounds it,” says Doc Hastings, chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources. “Someone has a lease, for example, and wants to make an investment and somebody says, ‘Uh-oh, there’s a potential endangered species — file a lawsuit.’ How much is that going to cost?” Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision regarding the sage grouse in 2015.

— Zak Weinberg

Overgrazing turning parts of Mongolian Steppe into desert

Overgrazing by millions of sheep and goats has degraded Mongolian Steppe vegetation by up to 80 percent in recent years, according to a new report released by Oregon State University that takes advantage of satellite imagery. The loss of ecosystems has come with socioeconomic changes since the breakup of the Soviet Union, as more people turned to domestic herding. Since 1990, livestock numbers in the region have nearly doubled, to 45 million.

Changes in precipitation were able to explain about 30 percent of degradation across Mongolia as a whole, while temperature changes played only a minor role.

“This is a pretty serious issue,” Thomas Hilker, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Forestry, said in a press release.

“Regionally, this is a huge area in which the land is being degraded and the food supply for local people is being reduced. Globally, however, all ecosystems have a distinct function in world climate,” he added. “Vegetation cools the landscape and plays an important role for the water and carbon balance, including greenhouse gases.”

Twelve percent of the area’s biomass has disappeared in recent years, and 70 percent of the grassland ecosystem is considered degraded.

— Zak Weinberg