The feds' sage grouse sleight-of-hand
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In the entertainment business, illusionists often distract the audience with intricate motions with one hand, while "magically" producing astonishing results with the other. Recently, federal agencies tried their own sleight-of-hand, launching a glossy brochure touting sage grouse habitat accomplishments over the past year in an effort to fool the public into thinking that their new, collaborative sage grouse efforts are some kind of decisive solution. Sadly, it is not very convincing.

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The one-year progress report is filled with pretty pictures, sprinkled with a handful of sunny anecdotes, and even an assortment of funding spent and acres treated to quantify agency accomplishments. The agencies tout $56 million in federal spending on post-fire habitat rehabilitation, and new programs in which inmates grow sagebrush seedlings in prison. The report gives the impression that conditions are getting better all the time, thanks to the new state and federal efforts.

Pay no attention, gentle reader, to the fact that more than 1 million acres of sage grouse country burned over the past year in at least 30 separate fires. These fires are part of a vicious cycle in which overgrazing by cattle and sheep causes the widespread invasion of highly flammable, non-native weeds like cheatgrass. The proliferation of weeds provides the fuel for the unnaturally frequent fires that are wiping out sagebrush habitats much faster than they can regrow.

Balance that one-year loss of 1 million acres against the 400,000 total acres that federal agencies claim to have returned to sage grouse habitat through juniper removal projects, and you get a net loss of more than a half a million habitat acres. It's not a perfect comparison — not all the acres that burned were sage grouse habitat, and the juniper treatment acres are a six-year total since 2010, but the overall sense of the numbers is a net loss of habitat. Fifty years or more into the future, some of that net loss will probably become sage grouse habitat again, thanks to restoration efforts. In the meantime, the net habitat loss means that sage grouse are worse off today than they were a year ago.

Since sagebrush habitat can take a century or more to recover, the millions of dollars spent on post-fire rehabilitation will take decades before they provide any habitat for sage grouse. Meanwhile, the birds are losing ground.

Most of the new sage grouse plan amendments include an objective that agencies maintain at least seven inches of grass height on on the ground to provide adequate cover for sage grouse. This is a great idea and ensures enough hiding cover for nesting sage grouse and chicks. These habitat standards apply in Priority Habitat Management Areas and Sagebrush Focal Areas specified in the sage grouse plans. If enforced, this standard would probably reduce the grazing pressure enough in Priority Habitats and Sagebrush Focal Areas to maintain native bunchgrasses that don't burn frequently, and might solve the cycle of overgrazing and invasive weeds that is causing today's catastrophic range fires.

But there’s a catch: The livestock grazing reforms promised under the new plans aren't being implemented. According to a new analysis from Western Watersheds Project, the Department of Interior approved 1,123 10-year grazing permits inside Priority Habitats and Sagebrush Focal Areas since the new sage grouse plans were completed. At least 809 of these permits — almost three-quarters of them — entirely failed to incorporate the new sage grouse habitat objectives promised under the plans. Instead, these 10-year permits were reissued under their original terms. Thus, even in the most sensitive habitats, the vast majority of livestock operations approved since the sage grouse plans went into effect will go unchanged, without any standards for meeting sage grouse habitat needs.

Meanwhile, on 35.5 million acres of sage grouse habitats falling outside of these specially designated areas, the new plans apply no habitat standards at all for managing livestock grazing. That represents more than half of the sage grouse habitat on federal lands where grazing lessees do not have to provide for basic sage grouse habitat needs.

The loopholes, about which conservation groups are so concerned, are proving fatal.

Interestingly, the agencies' biggest conservation achievement to date isn't even mentioned in the Department of Interior's piece. According to Bureau of Land Management figures released in 2014, some 8.1 million acres of oil and gas leases involving important sage grouse habitats were pulled from federal lease auctions while the planning process was underway. That's a huge chunk of habitat, at risk for drilling and habitat fragmentation, held safe from industrial destruction. But federal agencies don't want too much attention paid to this success, because they might want to start rolling it back. Federal sage grouse plans specifically allow new oil and gas leasing inside all types of sage grouse habitat, even the most sensitive areas.

Sage grouse populations are up this year in some areas, helped by favorable rainfall patterns. Thanks to a glut in commodities markets and the resulting bust in drilling and construction activity, habitat fragmentation has slowed. This is a breather that really helps sage grouse. But the new federal plans allow industrial projects to proceed, under terms and conditions that vary from state to state, even in the highest-priority grouse habitats identified for conservation in the new plans.

Once oil and gas prices spike again, as they inevitably do, there will be a fresh onslaught of sage grouse habitat destruction. Federal approvals of industrial projects were thankfully placed on hold while the sage grouse plans were being prepared. Now that reprieve is ending, and a backlog of massive drilling projects stands to be approved. And because the new federal plans fail to incorporate the strong, science-based protections that the agencies' own experts recommended in their 2011 Sage-grouse National Technical Team report, these new developments will likely cause major and long-term declines in sage grouse populations, piling on to the past century's losses.

We are pleased that federal agencies are spending millions to rehabilitate burned areas, which would almost certainly turn into vast oceans of cheatgrass if no actions were taken. Well done! And we're heartened by news that federal agencies plan to spend $360 million by 2018 on sage grouse conservation. If this money is spent on science-based projects — like removing fences, roads and overhead powerlines that harm sage grouse habitat today — these expenditures would have an immediate benefit to sage grouse. And while the 5 million acres of conservation easements purchased so far have no chance of improving habitat conditions for sage grouse, they at least prevent the future destruction of private sagelands by subdivisions in those limited areas where real estate development is a real threat.

This is no time for agencies to take a victory lap, however. The bottom line is that these significant federal expenditures are band-aids insufficient to produce a net gain in sage grouse habitat, and they sidestep the major problems that have driven individual sage grouse populations on a downward spiral toward extinction. Livestock overgrazing will continue, degrading sage grouse habitat and stoking the cycle of cheatgrass and range fires. Sooner or later, fossil fuel commodity prices will rise and the bulldozers and drilling rigs will pour into sage grouse habitats once again. On that day, the flimsy protections of the new federal plans will prove their inadequacies.

So federal agencies should spare us the prestidigitation of glossy puff pieces, and instead give the sage grouse what it always needed: real, mandatory protections that prevent the further destruction of grouse habitat and foster a long-term upsurge in sage grouse numbers. Robust populations on vast tracts of healthy habitat are the only outcomes that Americans should accept as success.

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


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