Sage-grouse protection plans in the West under review by Biden administration

By: - November 26, 2021 11:32 am

The Biden administration is reviving plans to manage habitat for the greater sage-grouse that the Trump administration put on hold. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

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 Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, 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 oil and gas development and expanding agriculture operations, as well as the effects of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated earlier this year that sage-grouse populations had dropped 80 percent since 1965 and 40 percent 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 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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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.