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Interior Secretary Zinke to Slash Sage-grouse Protections in Seven Western States
The Bureau of Land Management’s proposed changes to resource-management plans in Colorado, northeastern California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming would unravel greater sage-grouse protections put in place just three years ago. In 2015 western states and federal officials approved plans to reverse the bird’s decline and prevent the need to list it as endangered.
“Unfortunately, this administration seems to be dead set on turning important sage-grouse habitat into oil fields and unlimited forage for domestic livestock,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “By whittling away even the inadequate limits imposed by these plans, the BLM is undermining the only hope of saving this species.”
The greater sage grouse is under threat because it is intensely loyal to particular areas, reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush and especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. The new plans eliminate protections for sagebrush focal areas, which currently are given the highest levels of protection. They also eliminate science-based habitat standards for grazing use and make it easier for BLM officials to waive buffers around sage-grouse mating areas, called leks.
“The BLM management plans and push for drilling in the most important areas for grouse reflect a deep denial about both the dire condition of grouse populations and climate change,” said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for American Bird Conservancy. “The agency plans recklessly eliminate grouse habitat and pollute the atmosphere, and should be shelved.”
Today’s plans would gut a key requirement that the agency do “more good than harm” when authorizing projects in sage-grouse habitat. They also would curtail wildlife agencies’ involvement in decisions about whether oil and gas development should be allowed in sage-grouse habitat. Plans for several states also weaken requirements that the BLM prioritize fossil-fuel development outside the birds’ habitat.
“These plans show that Zinke will stop at nothing to make it easier for polluting industries to mine and frack every last acre of the West,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a huge step backward for greater sage grouse and for hundreds of other species that depend on unspoiled public land.”
Protecting the greater sage grouse and its habitat benefits a host of other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea, including pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagle, native trout and nearly 200 migratory and resident bird species.
“Instead of greasing the skids for more fossil fuels on our public lands, we need to be protecting these lands not only for the greater sage-grouse, but for hundreds of other species dependent on these wild, open landscapes,” said Rebecca Fischer, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program. “The American West as we know it depends it.”
Today’s release of the plans initiates a 30-day protest period.
As many as 16 million greater sage grouse once ranged across 297 million acres of sagebrush grass lands, a vast area of western North America known as the Sagebrush Sea.
Over the past 200 years, agriculture, oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing and development have reduced the grouse’s range by nearly half, and sage grouse populations have steadily declined. Today sage grouse are found in 11 Western states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The BLM is responsible for managing about half of the remaining sage-grouse habitat. After years of inaction and prompted by a 2011 decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the BLM initiated sage-grouse protection planning.
This unprecedented five-year effort, led by the Department of the Interior, resulted in land-use plans with new measures to protect the bird. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered was predicated on the assumption that the public land management plans would be implemented and would reverse the decline of the grouse.