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Feds Shortchange Imperiled Gunnison Sage Grouse in New Land Use Plans

August 12, 2016
Erik Molvar (307) 399-7910, emolvar@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Climate + Energy, Wildlife   Gunnison sage grouse
#KeepItInTheGround, #SafeguardTheSagebrushSea
Friday, August 12, 2016
Feds Shortchange Imperiled Gunnison Sage Grouse in New Land Use Plans

Weak Habitat Protections Frustrate Efforts to Recover Threatened Bird
Contact: Erik Molvar (307) 399-7910, emolvar@wildearthguardians.org

DENVER – Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released proposed changes to land use plans for public lands in the habitat of the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse in southwestern Colorado and Utah. The proposed changes, known as plan amendments, fall far short of the science-based protections needed to ensure the rare birds survive and recover. A 2014 agreement between federal agencies and WildEarth Guardians requires the plan updates. The Gunnison sage grouse currently is listed as a ‘threatened species’ under the Endangered Species Act, yet the proposed grouse protections are significantly weaker in key areas than those adopted for the rangewide greater sage grouse plans or for the Mono Basin sage grouse, an isolated population on the California-Nevada border with comparable rarity and threats as the Gunnison sage grouse.

“Federal agencies should be doing all they can to make Gunnison sage grouse habitat conservation their top priority,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “More than half the remaining habitat is on public land, so federal agencies need to do their part to provide healthy habitats that can support viable populations over the long term.”

The Gunnison sage grouse is the newest recognized bird species in North America, and is distinct from the greater sage grouse in its white-barred tailfeathers and its more rapid mating call.

Protection levels proposed under the draft plan amendment are significantly lower for the Gunnison sage grouse, with a worldwide population hovering around 5,000 birds, than they are for plans adopted last September to protect the far more numerous, but still imperiled, greater sage grouse. For example, greater sage grouse leks (the critical sites for displaying and breeding) get 3.1 to 5-mile buffers, while the Gunnison sage grouse are proposed to get skimpy 0.6-mile buffers. And while key habitats are closed to future gravel mining for greater sage grouse, Gunnison sage grouse habitats remain wide open.

“The least the BLM could have done is to adopt stronger protections for the much rarer Gunnison sage grouse than the scientifically inadequate compromises that the greater sage grouse received,” said Molvar. “The federal government needs to prove it is serious about recovering the Gunnison sage grouse on public lands before the protections of the Endangered Species Act can legally be lifted.”

The draft plan amendment also opens up Gunnison sage grouse habitats that have been closed to oil and gas leasing for years, allowing sensitive habitats to be auctioned for drilling uner ‘No Surface Occupancy’ provisions with a built-in option for loopholes. Disappointingly, the proposed protections exclude Forest Service lands that represent more than 20% of the federally-owned Gunnison sage grouse habitat.

In contrast to the five-year planning effort to protect greater sage grouse, federal efforts to increase protections for the Gunnison sage grouse have lagged behind. In Gunnison sage grouse country, agencies are often still operating under land-use plans from the 1990s, some of which have no specific provisions to protect the Gunnison sage grouse or its habitats. WildEarth Guardians plans to submit a detailed critique of the plan amendment during the public comment period, which is open through November 10th, 2016.