Greater Sage-Grouse populations remain in serious trouble. Photo by Tom Reichner/Shutterstock
The Administration has finalized major changes to the 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plans. These changes gut vital protections for the grouse; undermine the deal made by Western states and federal officials; and create uncertainty for millions of Westerners and the bird.
The revised plans eliminate vital protections for the sage-grouse. Specifically, most of the Sagebrush Focal Areas — 8.7 million acres of the key habitat for grouse and some 350 other species that were off limits to immediate development in the original plans — are now exposed to increased oil and gas extraction and other energy development.
“Federal administrators began dismantling safeguards put in place by the 2015 plans as soon as they could, removing each layer of conservation management and mitigation,” said Steve Holmer, Vice President of Policy for American Bird Conservancy. “Now grouse populations are declining across their range and have nearly disappeared from Washington State and the Dakotas. The trend is ominous.”
“These changes will put the grouse back on a path toward needing an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing,” said Mike Parr, ABC President. “That’s exactly the outcome that the 2015 cooperative plans had sought to prevent.”
Please see additional ABC information on sage-grouse:
American Bird Conservancy is dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@abcbirds).
(Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 2017) Conserving Greater Sage-Grouse requires more habitat protection, not less. That’s the message conservation groups are delivering to the administration as it considers potentially devastating revisions to the landmark 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse conservation planning initiative. The revisions, if enacted, would come at too high a cost to the sage-grouse and the remaining sagebrush habitat on public lands, sending the future of both the bird and its iconic landscape back into uncertainty.
“Because of these proposed backward-looking changes and new development plans for public lands in the region, the grouse is once again at risk of extinction and in need of stronger protection,” said Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy’s Vice President of Policy. “The stability and certainty provided to local communities and land users by the federal management plans and other grouse conservation measures are also now at risk of being lost if these changes are put into place.”
Instead of changing direction, the federal government should live up to promises it made in 2015 to ensure sage-grouse protection — promises that formed the basis for not listing the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The coalition of conservation groups, which includes those most focused on sage-grouse protection over the past decade, are gravely concerned about the recommendation made in the Interior Department’s Sage-Grouse Report to roll back those vital protections and eliminate Sagebrush Focal Areas.
“We oppose the administration's plan to roll back these protections, and also oppose efforts to reduce sage-grouse habitat by further reducing protected habitats, reversing adaptive management that occurs when habitat or population triggers are tripped, or eliminating general habitat management areas in Utah,” said Rebecca Fischer of WildEarth Guardians. “It's also appalling that the planning effort is occurring on a state-by-state basis. This ignores the need to consider the species’ needs at a range-wide scale and will result in the failure to apply strong and consistent protections.”
The Greater Sage-Grouse has become a wildly popular and iconic symbol of the American West and its wide-open sagebrush basins. Year after year, sage-grouse gather in the spring at small arenas in the sagebrush called leks to dance, display, and mate. Their mating dance is one of the great natural spectacles of the West.
“The protections which the administration appears ready to eviscerate are essential, not just for sage-grouse but for a broad diversity of wildlife and the health of public lands in the West,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Sagebrush Focal Areas are the only habitats where the land-use plans even come close to the protections recommended by scientific experts, so at minimum all of the priority habitats should receive this level of protection.”
The groups are urging Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to adopt the scientific recommendations of the Bureau of Land Management’s own science team on sage-grouse. Those recommendations include refraining from fluid-mineral leasing in priority habitats, buffering leks by four miles to prevent any impacts from known disturbances, ensuring that all grazing allotments are meeting science-based standards for sagebrush habitat integrity, ceasing vegetation treatments that degrade sagebrush habitat, preserving winter habitats, limiting disturbances to one per section and 3 percent of each square mile of priority habitat, and withdrawing sagebrush habitats from mining. The agencies’ analysis should preserve priority habitats through a network of areas of critical environmental concern and zoological areas managed to protect sage-grouse, according to the groups.
John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said: “This ill-timed revision of federal sage-grouse management plans, before they have had a chance to work, runs counter to the best available science.”
Instead of balancing development with conservation, the administration has adopted a policy of “energy dominance,” prioritizing fossil fuel development over other uses on western public lands.
“This attack on sage-grouse conservation is part of a larger trend of plundering public lands and resources,” said Michael Saul of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Secretary Zinke’s proposed gutting of the sage-grouse plans reads like an oil and gas industry wish list, and is a recipe for accelerating the decline of Greater Sage-Grouse across the West.”
Photo of Greater Sage-Grouse by Warren Cooke
American Bird Conservancy is dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.5 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.
Western Watersheds Project works to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives, and legal advocacy. WWP works to influence and improve public lands management throughout the West with a primary focus on the negative impacts of livestock grazing on 250 million acres of western public lands.
WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Guardians has worked for years and continues to work to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Sagebrush Sea so that future generations might continue to enjoy this spectacular species.
Nature Chronicles a Diversity of Life in
The Sagebrush Sea
Wednesday, May 20, 2015 on PBS
An ecosystem tapped by energy development faces an uncertain future
It's been called The Big Empty - an immense sea of sagebrush that once stretched 500,000 square miles across North America, exasperating thousands of westward-bound travelers as an endless place through which they had to pass to reach their destinations. Yet it's far from empty, as those who look closely will discover. In this ecosystem anchored by the sage, eagles and antelope, badgers and lizards, rabbits, wrens, owls, prairie dogs, songbirds, hawks and migrating birds of all description make their homes. For one bird, however, it is a year-round home, as it has been for thousands of years. The Greater Sage-Grouse relies on the sage for everything and is found no place else. But their numbers are in decline. Two hundred years ago, there were as many as 16 million sage grouse; today, there may be fewer than 200,000.
The Sagebrush Sea tracks the Greater Sage-Grouse and other wildlife through the seasons as they struggle to survive in this rugged and changing landscape. The program airs Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). After broadcast, the episode will be available for online streaming at pbs.org/nature.
In early spring, male sage grouse move to open spaces, gathering in clearings known as leks to establish mating rights. They strut about, puffing up yellow air sacs in their breasts and making a series of popping sounds to intimidate other males. For weeks, they practice their elaborate display and square off with other arriving males, battling to establish dominance and territory. Successful males then display for discriminating females and are allowed to mate only if chosen as the most suitable. The criteria are a mystery to all but the females, nearly all of which select only one or two males on the lek each year. Once they've bred, the hens will head off into the protective sage to build their nests near food and water and raise their offspring alone. Within a month, the chicks hatch and follow the hens as they forage for food and keep a watchful eye out for predators. In the summer, the grouse head to wetlands, often populated by farms and ranches, in search of water, only to return to the sage in the fall. Shrinking wetlands that once supported thousands of grouse still manage to provide for hundreds.
Other species discussed in the program include the golden eagle and great-horned owl. Both bird species take advantage of perfect perches on the rocks and ridges sculpted by the area's constant wind to nest, hunt, and raise their families. Cavity-nesting bluebirds and the American kestrel return each year to raise their young in rock crevices. The sagebrush serves as a nursery for the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher and the Brewer's sparrow, all of which breed nowhere else.
Sage survives in this arid environment through deep roots that reach to the water below. Like water, however, many key resources are locked below ground in the high desert, bringing an increasing presence of wells, pipelines and housing. As they proliferate, the sage sea is becoming more and more fragmented, impacting habitats and migratory corridors. And of the 500,000 square miles of sagebrush steppe that stretched across North America, only half now remains. For the sage and the grouse, the future is uncertain.
Nature is a production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. For Nature, Fred Kaufman is executive producer. The Sagebrush Sea is a Cornell Lab of Ornithology Production.
Nature pioneered a television genre that is now widely emulated in the broadcast industry. Throughout its history, Nature has brought the natural world to millions of viewers. The series has been consistently among the most-watched primetime series on public television.
Nature has won over 700 honors from the television industry, the international wildlife film communities and environmental organizations, including 12 Emmys and three Peabodys. The series received two of wildlife film industry's highest honors: the Christopher Parsons Outstanding Achievement Award given by the Wildscreen Festival and the Grand Teton Award given by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. The International Wildlife Film Festival honored Nature executive producer Fred Kaufman with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Media.
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Support for this Nature program was made possible in part by the Arnhold Family in memory of Clarisse Arnhold, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Estate of Elizabeth A. Vernon, the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, the Kate W. Cassidy Foundation, the Filomen M. D'Agostino Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, George B. Storer Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.
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“This new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report provides an important roadmap for land managers that we urge the agencies to follow. It represents a good-faith effort at using the best available science to protect the species,” said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for American Bird Conservancy, one of the nation’s leading bird conservation organizations. “So it is disappointing that we are seeing Bureau of Land Management resource management plans already created without the benefit of this guidance. Those plans appear to fall short of what’s needed to conserve the species.”
The new Conservation Objectives Report is intended to guide a major regional planning effort now underway to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse. Following the completion of seven state-based Environmental Impact Statements, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S.D.A. Forest Service will then amend more than 100 individual management plans across a vast amount (57 million acres) of federal lands.
However, the BLM has already released the final Lander Resource Management plan in Wyoming as well as a draft plan for the Miles City management area in Montana. These plans will determine how sage grouse habitat will be managed and whether protected areas will be established.
“Several BLM management plans are being completed without the benefit of the new Conservation Objectives Report and need strengthening,” said Holmer. “For example, the Lander Resource Management plan did not designate any significant protected areas for the Greater Sage-Grouse. Conserving the grouse will require improving management and protecting sufficient habitat.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation Objectives Report is available here.
American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. ABC acts by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats, while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.