The sage-grouse is not considered an endangered species but scientists warned that the population of the bird could be threatened in the future if the rampant and increasingly damaging wildfires in the Great Basin can't be stopped.
In a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)-led study, researchers looked at the effects of wildfire and climate on the growth of sage-grouse population over a period of 30 years. They came up with a model that simulated post-fire recovery times of habitats of sagebrush.
The sage-grouse live in sagebrush grasslands and mainly eat sagebrush. They also munch the leaves of the plant for strength prior to breeding season.
Based on the forecasts of the model, the researchers found that if current trends in wildfires remain unabated, there would be steady and substantial drop in the populations of the greater sage-grouse across the Great Basin. Half of the current population could be gone by the mid 2040's.
"These models illustrate how sage-grouse population persistence likely will be compromised as sagebrush ecosystems and sage-grouse habitat are degraded by wildfire, especially in a warmer and drier climate, and by invasion of annual grasses that can increase wildfire frequency and size in the Great Basin," wrote Peter Coates, from the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, and colleagues in the report.
The USGS released the report on Thursday, just ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision whether or not the bird requires federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
With wildfires and other threats compromising the population of the birds, which once numbered as high as 16 million, listing them as endangered could protect their species but some experts claim that the move could have devastating effects on the economies of Western states.
Once the bird is declared endangered, the huge swaths of lands that the sage-grouse currently inhabits could no longer have other uses. Industries that pose threats to the land inhabited by the birds such as those that produce crude oil, coal, natural gas and beef could take a huge hit if the land in the 11 states where the bird currently lives will be off-limits to them.
A study claims that placing the bird in the endangered list would cost the U.S. over $5.6 billion in economic losses.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said that declaring the bird as endangered could slash the energy exportation of the state, which happens to be the biggest in the country. He estimates that Wyoming could lose 25,000 jobs and billions of dollars if the bird is declared endangered.