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Sage-Grouse Plan Revisions Take Management From Bad To Worse

For Immediate Release
May 2, 2018

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project (307) 399-7910


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The proposed federal sage-grouse plan amendments released today confirm the Trump administration’s plans to hand over important habitat on public lands to extractive industries, and to increase state control of the species despite prior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledgment that state plans didn’t adequately protect the species and that a unified federal strategy was necessary.

“Although the science on sage grouse sensitivity to industrial use and habitat degradation varies little from state to state, the Trump administration proposes to weaken the plans differentially according to the preferences of state politicians, creating a crazy-quilt of varying plans,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project. “None of these plans as proposed to be amended will be adequate to prevent further population declines for an already rare and struggling bird.” 

An initial evaluation of three of the proposed plan amendments (Idaho – Southwest Montana, Wyoming, and Utah), it appear that each of these plans further undermine sage grouse conservation measures in significant and detrimental important ways, including gutting current plan protections – already substantially weaker than the BLM’s own earlier scientific expert recommendations.

All three plans eliminate Sagebrush Focal Areas, land designations with  the highest level of protection under the Obama-era plans, and several weaken limits on oil and gas development. In Idaho, buffers designed to keep disturbances away from sensitive breeding and nesting areas known as leks were weakened, and in General Habitat Management Areas these buffers were eliminated entirely.

“It was the conversion of sage grouse habitats to natural gas fields that drove this iconic bird to the brink of extinction in the first place,” Molvar observed. “With the continued erosion of limitations on drilling, the next oil and gas boom is likely to spell doom for the large number of remaining grouse populations.”

In Wyoming, the proposed plan amendment would also allow Priority Habitat boundaries to be changed in the future without a federal plan amendment, at the drop of a governor’s executive order. This undermines the entire public process that the plans were supposed to achieve. This means that Priority Habitat protections could also disappear without subsequent analysis.

The plans also remove the few meaningful parameters for managing livestock grazing. The scientifically established 7-inch grass height objective of the 2015 plans, established to provide protective cover for nesting birds, was made an optional provision in Wyoming, and eliminated entirely in the newly proposed Idaho-Southwest Montana plan amendment. The Utah plan already lacked measurable hiding cover standards. In addition, all three plans abandon sage grouse population health as a criterion for bringing problem livestock grazing leases up to standards. In Oregon, the only plan in 2015 to outright remove grazing from grouse habitat in 22,000 acres of Research Natural Areas, the new plans completely eliminate that provision. 

“Across much of the West, chronic overgrazing by the livestock industry is a major factor in the decline of sage grouse populations, and this is especially obvious in areas that lack oil and gas development,” said Molvar. “But instead of tackling this problem head-on, federal agencies appear to be scrambling to avoid any real scrutiny of problem grazing.”

The Utah plan proposal is especially damaging to sage grouse conservation efforts, eliminating 448,600 acres of General Habitat Management Areas outright, and allowing intrusive types of developments in the most sensitive sage grouse habitat areas, as long as they are sited outside suitable habitats.

“It is a well-known fact that drilling activities cause sage grouse populations to abandon their most sensitive habitats within 3.1 miles of the drilling site, so simply siting an oil and gas well in a patch of juniper or in a grassy area devoid of sagebrush could eliminate sage grouse use on 30 square miles surrounding that one well,” said Molvar. “Eliminating the General habitat designation further exacerbates the odds of sage grouse extinction in a state where populations, already fragmented and isolated from each other, are hanging on in small remnants of habitat left over after intensive agricultural operations have already destroyed the lion’s share of the native ecosystem

All three plan amendments examined appear to eliminate the commitment to prioritize oil and gas leasing and drilling outside sage grouse habitats. Under the Obama administration, some 5 million acres of sage grouse habitat had been pulled out of lease auctions under this provision.

“We’ll be carefully analyzing the plans in the next three months to see exactly how the federal agencies propose to protect the birds – or not,” concluded Molvar. “WWP will be certain to give this further weakening of sage grouse conservation the scientific and legal scrutiny it deserves.”

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