WASHINGTON, D.C. December 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.”