Sage-grouse protection plans under review by Biden administration

Sage-grouse protection plans under review by Biden administration
Greater Sage-Grouse

by Jacob Fischler, Nevada Current
November 25, 2021

WASHINGTON–The Bureau of Land Management is updating Obama-era plans to manage the greater sage-grouse in 10 Western states.

The BLM has published a request for comments to help update management plans for the bird’s habitat in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and other Western states.

The Interior Department agency will review new scientific data, including the effects of climate change, to determine how to manage the bird’s habitat, a Nov. 19 news release said.

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in the release that the agency would “build upon” the model developed under President Barack Obama that Interior officials at the time credited with saving the sage-grouse from inclusion on the Endangered Species Act list.

But the agency must first collect data to determine what needs to be updated after President Donald Trump’s administration undercut the conservation efforts.

“The 2015 plans established a solid foundation, but actions during the previous administration kept those plans from being put into action,” Stone-Manning said. “As we move to build upon the earlier plans, we are asking whether there are other steps we should take given new science.”

Sage-grouse are plentiful across a 167 million-acre range in arid Western shrublands and meadows where sagebrush is the dominant plant.

But sage-grouse habitat is threatened by human activity, including mining, expanding agricultural operations, and oil and gas development , as well as the effects of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated earlier this year that sage-grouse populations had dropped 80% since 1965 and 40% since 2002.

The sage-grouse, known for its bizarre mating display, has garnered political controversy for years because of the effects federal protections have on rural industries.

In 2015, the BLM and Forest Service under Obama amended nearly 100 land use plans, in consultation with state authorities and private landowners, to encourage sage-grouse conservation efforts. The plan also recommended that 10 million acres of sage-grouse habitat be removed from eligibility for mining.

Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the landscape-scale plan “truly historic” for its scope and efforts at collaboration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that because of that plan, the species no longer warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But under President Donald Trump in 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Republican U.S. House member from Montana, rescinded the order on mining and directed the department to look for ways to allow development in the areas protected by the 2015 plan.

A 2019 analysis commissioned by conservation groups The Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society found that federal approvals of oil and gas leases on sage-grouse habitat tripled in the first two years of the Trump administration compared with the last 15 months of Obama’s tenure.

Alison Holloran, the vice president of the National Audubon Society and executive director of the Audubon Rockies regional office, said it will be key to determine how circumstances had changed since the 2015 actions and indicated more far-reaching action may be needed.

“Reinstating the 2015 plans was an important step, but we find ourselves in a different place than where we were six years ago,” she said in a Monday news release from the group. “We’ve lost important time to conserve and restore these public lands which are so important to sage-grouse. The threats to the bird are real and can’t afford to be ignored.”

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