Attacking the special-interest loopholes in federal sage grouse plans

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When politics trumps science and the law, enriching industry's coffers at the expense of imperiled wildlife, it's our job as conservationists to uphold the law and the public trust. That's exactly what happened last week when conservation groups filed suit to ensure that the charismatic dancing sage grouse has a fighting chance at survival.

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Last September, after years of planning, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) unveiled sage grouse plans that were filled with so many special-interest loopholes, you'd have thought the oil and livestock industries wrote them.

It wasn't always that way. Federal sage grouse planning started out with the best of intentions. In fact, the agencies designated large stretches of the Sagebrush Sea as priority habitats for sage grouse, and updated management plans to increase habitat protections in these areas.

The BLM even convened a panel of sage grouse experts to review the science on problems facing sage grouse and their habitats, and that panel did a decent job of setting standards based on the science, particularly for industrial uses. But then politics set in.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified "priority areas for conservation" that are "essential for sage-grouse conservation," the land-use agencies whittled away at those habitats in California, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, giving a much lower level of protection to millions of acres of the most important habitats. Nevada was the most extreme — some 47 percent of these habitats were denied "priority" status in the federal plans, leaving more than 9 million acres of prime habitats with only token protections.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that sage grouse avoid tall structures such as powerlines because they amplify predation from hawks and eagles that roost on the towers, the BLM undermined protections from powerlines by exempting every single major transmission project under consideration by the agency.

The BLM's experts recommended closing priority habitats entirely to future mineral leasing and claims of all kinds. Yet the new plans allow future oil and gas leasing — the biggest threat — in all of Wyoming, the stronghold for sage grouse, and where the threats from drilling are most extreme.

In Wyoming, the "no surface occupancy" provisions apply only within 0.6 mile of sage grouse leks (unique spots where grouse return to dance and mate each year). This leaves 98 percent of nesting habitat open to roads and drilling sites, and allows industrial disturbance close enough to interrupt the mating dance of breeding birds on the lek.

The experts recommend a limit of 3 percent surface disturbance in key habitats. In most states, that limit applies, just like the science says. But in Wyoming, the limit is boosted to 5 percent, almost twice as much, and enough to allow conventional, full-field oil and gas fields to be built inside sage grouse priority areas. And the feds promised Montana they would lower federal standards to 5 percent in that state too, if only Montana would adopt a state plan similar to Wyoming's industry-friendly plan.

In 2013, a scientific study modeled the expected levels of development across Wyoming, based on the assumption that the state's core area plan would be implemented rigorously and without exception. The study predicted a further 9 percent population decline in the short-term, and a 15 percent decline over the long-term, for Wyoming's sage grouse populations, if the plan's protections were applied rigorously. So far, however, exceptions are easy to come by in Wyoming.

In the Great Basin states, livestock grazing has converted massive tracts of pristine habitat to cheatgrass, an invasive weed that burns frequently, causing range fires that can wipe out hundreds of thousands of acres of sage grouse habitat for up to a century. It's the single biggest problem sage grouse face in the region. The new plans do include some targets that might help curb the overgrazing that leads to cheatgrass spread.

But according to analysis by Western Watersheds Project, of 964 grazing permits approved rangewide since the new sage grouse plans were adopted, BLM renewed some 84 percent of livestock grazing without incorporating the new sage grouse protections. As Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project observed, "The BLM is continuing to rubber-stamp a business-as-usual approach to livestock grazing in sage grouse habitats that ignores the habitat protections promised in the plans."

Federal officials have been quick to trumpet the new sage grouse plans as a model in collaboration. And while Secretary of the Interior Sally JewellSally JewellDem senators back Interior coal leasing review As climate crisis worsens, it's Interior Secretary Jewell who's being naïve Puerto Rico bill drops GOP’s wildlife refuge transfer MORE couldn't schedule enough photo ops with ranchers or closed-door meetings with Western governors, she repeatedly refused to meet with the leading sage grouse conservation groups. In the end, the two states that completed collaborative processes for sage grouse — Wyoming and Colorado — ended up with the weakest federal plans. It's a lesson for conservationists everywhere.

Scientists estimate North America's original sage grouse population at 16 million birds. In 1886, the famous naturalist George Bird Grinnell recorded an enormous flock of sage grouse in Bates Hole, Wyo.: "Looking up from the tent at the edge of the bluff above us, we could see projecting over it the heads of hundreds of the birds, and, as those standing there took flight, others stepped forward to occupy their places," Grinnell wrote. "The number of Grouse which flew over the camp reminded me of the old time flights of Passenger Pigeons that I used to see when I was a boy. Before long the narrow valley where the water was, was a moving mass of gray."

No one alive today can remember sage grouse flocks like these. Today's population numbers a few hundred thousand, having decreased as much as 98 percent from their original levels. And because of the weak plans, extinction remains a real threat.

Adopting federal plans that designate priority habitats for protection across 10 Western states is all well and good, but it's a disservice to everyone (not to mention to sage grouse) to manage those priority habitats for levels of destruction known to destroy sage grouse populations. Conservationists serious about recovering this charismatic bird have little choice but to look to the courts for justice for our lands and our endangered wildlife.

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

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