The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has initiated a planning process for the conservation of the greater sage grouse, which environmental groups say is an opportunity to create much-needed protections for a species that has been threatened by industrial and agricultural land use in the west for decades.
“This new planning process gives [the BLM] a golden opportunity to correct the inadequacies of the original sage grouse plans and bring them to the standards of scientific habitat protections across all of the different states,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the conservation group Western Watersheds Project.
The original federal sage grouse management plan that was adopted in 2015 contained habitat designations that were inadequate to protect sage grouse habitat, according to Molvar.
“You need large, contiguous protected areas that are free from roads and industrial sites if you’re going to maintain sage grouse populations over the long-term,” said Molvar. “Yet despite this knowledge, biologists advanced scientifically invalid habitat designations.”
The 2015 federal plan excluded approximately 16 million acres of land recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (a federal agency) for priority conservation, according to Molvar’s research. It was the states that didn’t want to protect the full extent of key habitat, which created the conservation deficiency.
States with large swaths of sage grouse habitat include Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Sage grouse need sagebrush for food, nesting, and protection from predators, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. They are considered sagebrush “obligates,” which means they rely on sagebrush throughout their entire life cycle. The rural nature of the four states make them ideal for land protections, according to conservationists, but many of these areas were not prioritized in the original land use management plan.
Updates were made to this plan in 2019 to improve upon its original land designations, but the BLM has since asserted that these amendments did not adequately address the effects of climate change on sage grouse habitat, according to the recently released Notice of Intent. These effects include more frequent wildfires and drought and a loss in riparian areas, which are essential to sage grouse in brood-rearing stages.
“As we move to build upon the earlier plans, we are asking whether there are other steps we should take given new science to improve outcomes for sage-grouse and also for people in communities across the west who rely on a healthy sagebrush steppe,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning in a BLM press release.
Conservationists say that protecting sage grouse habitat has been made difficult in Nevada by the mining and livestock industries.
“There’s been a heavy emphasis on fighting oil leasing in sage grouse habitat,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Of course, most oil and gas production happens outside of Nevada, but there’s a lot of gold mining in the state that impacts the sage grouse in a number of different ways.”
According to Donnelly, these mining impacts include the direct loss of habitat through the construction of a mine, loss of water in the surrounding water table that dries up meadows used by sage grouse for mating, and an increase in predators like ravens that follow human activity and prey on sage grouse chicks.
Nevada has the largest mining program in the country, with over 180,000 active mining claims, according to the BLM.
“What we need to do is make sure that the projects that will drive the sage grouse to extinction do not get permitted to begin with,” said Donnelly.
In addition to mining, cattle grazing also affects the health of sage grouse habitat, according to Molvar of the Western Watersheds Project.
“The state sage grouse conservation plans out there are not achieving the kinds of habitat improvements that are necessary to support a resurgence of sage grouse populations,” said Molvar. “And one of the big reasons for that is overgrazing by domestic livestock.”
Open-range cattle grazing is prominent throughout Nevada, with nearly 43 million acres of public land authorized for grazing, according to the BLM.
Overgrazing of sagebrush and native bunch grasses by livestock have depleted vegetation sage grouse rely on for food and cover from predators, according to Molvar. This has contributed to the 80% rangewide decline of the species since 1965, according to research from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The greater sage grouse was considered for enlistment under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010, but this effort was stopped with the 2015 land management plans that policymakers hoped would be enough to protect the bird. This move was criticized by many environmental groups who believe that the protections guaranteed to species under the Endangered Species Act are what is needed to effectively protect the sage grouse.
“The sage grouse is in acute precipitous population decline,” said Donnelly. “The sage grouse qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species – that’s really not disputable. It is only because of politics that the sage grouse is not on the endangered species list right now.”
Conservationists are hopeful that this new planning process will invoke some of the sage grouse protections that have been long fought for in the west.
“If we’re serious about sage grouse conservation, and also the health of sagebrush habitats, then we’re going to have to change the way we manage all kinds of commercial uses,” said Molvar. “The reason we have declines of not just sage grouse, but all kinds of other wildlife is because the habitat uses we’re authorizing for commercial industries is fundamentally incompatible with maintaining wildlife on public lands.”
Submit a comment on the Notice of Intent to amend sage grouse land use plans before the comment period closes on February 2, 2022 HERE.
Claire Carlson writes about the environment for Ally. Support her work.
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