Federal plans pave the way to a sage grouse listing
© WildEarth Guardians

Federal agencies recently released sage grouse land-use plans that attempt to compromise between industrial uses and sage grouse protections in the last remaining strongholds for this charismatic, vanishing bird. My organization, WildEarth Guardians, filed protests on the plans because they fail to adequately protect the grouse.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protecting the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act was "warranted" based on numerous threats, including fossil fuel development, livestock grazing, road and powerline sprawl, and the "inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms" to address these threats. In particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service called out the very federal land-use plans now being amended as the focal point of inadequate grouse protections on our public lands, which support 60 percent of remaining sage grouse.

Rather than doing enough to stave off further population declines and habitat degradation, the half-measures in the new plans are a road map for further imperilment. Here are but a few of the plans' problems.

In the western parts of the bird's range, federal agencies propose a seven-inch grass height objective to provide hiding cover for sage grouse. That's exactly what the science says the birds need. This provision looks like a promising turn toward relying on hard science rather than local political influence and patronage, until you notice that the standards won't be incorporated on grazing allotments until their 10-year permits are renewed. The Forest Service solves this problem on public lands it manages by incorporating the sage grouse protections each year into "annual operating instructions" that guide livestock grazing. But the Bureau of Land Management seems to think protections that don't take effect for nearly a decade are somehow "adequate."

Thanks to recent congressional meddling, grazing permits can be renewed with no new conservation measures if either cash or personnel are in short supply. This defense budget rider was ironically titled "The Grazing Improvement Act." By allowing grazing permits to be rubber-stamped under the same terms and conditions that have degraded sage grouse habitats for decades, Congress inadvertently prevents the reforms that protect grouse habitat and neutralize the threat to the birds posed by livestock identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The oil industry is barely impacted by the federal sage grouse plans, despite drilling being a major threat to the bird. Out of the tens of million acres of designated "priority habitats" that the agencies' own experts recommended putting off-limits to further oil and gas leasing, federal agencies propose to close exactly zero acres.

Wyoming, where sage grouse are declining most rapidly and where the pressure to drill for oil and gas is heaviest, receives the weakest protections from fossil fuel development. Instead of the 3 percent disturbance limit proposed for other states (and recommended by scientists), Wyoming's limit is 5 percent. There is no scientific evidence that such a limit is compatible with sage grouse survival, let alone recovery. The federal plans in Wyoming also buffer sage grouse leks by only 0.6 miles, which is far less than the widely recognized four-mile standard, and far outside the 3.1-to-five-mile range recently established by a 2014 U.S. Geological Survey scientific review.

Four of the biggest utility line projects in the West, currently in the planning stages, receive special exemptions so they wouldn't have to comply with sage grouse protections, including avoiding locating them inside habitats designated as "priority" for conservation under the federal plans. Because scientific studies show that raptors and ravens perching on transmission towers concentrate their efforts in a four-mile radius, millions of acres of prime grouse habitats would be subjected to unnatural levels of predation as a result.

When it comes to the most important and sensitive remaining sage grouse habitats, federal agencies have no business splitting the difference between industrial development and sage grouse habitat needs. Sage grouse can't survive on half of the habitat attributes they require to survive, any more than humans can compromise away our need for oxygen in exchange for food or vice versa.

The biological reality is that the sage grouse aren't going to survive unless we stop destroying their habitats. The political reality is that the good-old-boy networks out West don't want scientifically adequate sage grouse protections. And the legal reality is that a failure to adopt adequate federal plans will trigger listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In the end, adopting plans with inadequate grouse protections makes little sense, unless the plan all along has been to protect the birds under the Endangered Species Act.

It is still possible for the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to fix the flawed plans and truly protect the bird without the Endangered Species Act. The Obama administration's next move will determine whether sage grouse are protected through strong and science-based plans, or through an Endangered Species Act listing. The administration has to choose one or the other.

Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.