For Immediate Release
September 28, 2017
Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910
Trump administration to further weaken federal sage grouse compromise
Federal plan amendments, already watered down to appease local interests, to be reopened
WASHINGTON, DC – Unsatisfied with the sage grouse compromises brokered by the Obama administration, the Trump administration appears poised to amend the amendments to federal land use plans, further undercutting protections for the rare and charismatic greater sage-grouse. This large, ground-dwelling bird has become the iconic emblem of the Sagebrush Sea, and due to its requirement of large, unspoiled expanses of sagebrush habitat. The sage grouse is recognized by conservationists as key to protecting more than 350 species of plants and wildlife that rely on sagebrush habitats for their survival. The administration’s intentions were leaked to a New York Times journalist.
“The Obama administration weakened sage-grouse protections in federal plans in response to pressure from state governors, creating a crazy-quilt of loopholes that exempted the industries causing the most damage to sage grouse in each state from complying with protections,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist working for the conservation group Western Watersheds Project. “The existing federal sage-grouse protections already are far too weak to sustain sage grouse populations in the face of commercial uses that are being approved on public lands in many areas.”
In Wyoming, where oil and gas drilling poses the biggest threat to sage grouse, the 4-mile buffers around leks (or dancing and mating sites) to protect breeding and nesting habitats was replaced with a 0.6-mile buffer that left the vast majority of nesting habitats unprotected, and the limit of 3% surface disturbance was weakened to 5%. In Oregon, where there are no known oil and gas deposits but plenty of potential for wind energy, oil and gas protections are strong, but wind energy is exempted from complying with sage grouse priority habitat protections in three counties where wind development is most likely to occur. Rangewide, large transmission line projects were also exempted from compliance, and sage grouse protections in the current plans came with provisions for exceptions, modifications, and waivers, essentially rendering sage grouse conservation optional.
“The only reason that sage grouse populations are experiencing only modest declines across oil and gas country is that there has been a bust since 2008 with essentially zero new development under the weak protections afforded by today’s federal sage grouse plans,” said Molvar. “We’re not going to whitewash the Obama-era sage grouse plans, but getting rid of even these modest concessions to conservation will leave the sage grouse exposed to a strong likelihood of extinction. The resulting destruction of sagebrush habitats will also decimate populations of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn who rely on sage grouse habitats for winter range, migration corridors, or fawning and calving habitats.”
In addition, sage grouse priority habitats were gerrymandered under the federal plans to allow development in the most sensitive habitats with the greatest potential for industrial uses. In Wyoming, pristine habitats with some of the largest remaining sage grouse populations in the world were gerrymandered out of state Core Area designations to allowed planned industrial destruction of those habitats, and the federal plans adopted those state gerrymanders exactly. In Nevada, priority habitats identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were reduced by 47 percent in the BLM plans, leaving 9.4 million acres of prime habitat unprotected, and the resulting protected areas are so tiny and fragmented that industrial development along their boundaries would have severe impacts on the sage grouse populations within. In California, where the greater sage-grouse appears headed for extinction, some 70% of the most important remaining habitats identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were excluded from Priority Habitat Management Areas designated under the federal plans.
“For the Trump administration to further weaken the already inadequate sage grouse protections we have today is biologically irresponsible and displays a reckless disregard for the health of western lands and the wildlife they support,” said Molvar.
Most plans applied a habitat objective of leaving at least 7 inches of grass height in sage grouse nesting habitats to provide cover for the birds, as a hedge against overgrazing by the livestock industry. However, in most cases federal agencies have taken advantage of legal loopholes that allow old grazing leases to be renewed for another ten years under their original terms, without incorporating sage grouse habitat standards.
“Livestock grazing is widely recognized as the biggest threat to sage grouse and their habitats across the western half of their range, yet the standards that supposedly provide adequate grass cover for sage grouse to survive aren’t being implemented,” said Molvar. “Today’s cycle of cheatgrass expansion and range fires is the direct result of overgrazing by the livestock industry, yet federal agencies continue to fiddle while the West burns.”