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Trump Administration Slashes Sage Grouse Protections
“The new plans will allow sage grouse habitat needs to be overlooked and ignored whenever industry wants to site a new oil well, create a new road or build new fences,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “They undercut what few protections already exist and do nothing to conserve this iconic bird.”
The new Bureau of Land Management plans unravel greater sage-grouse protections approved in 2015 by western states and federal officials. That Obama-era agreement was intended to reverse the bird’s decline and prevent the need to list it as endangered. Among other things, the new plans will allow the BLM to lease hundreds of thousands of acres of high-priority sage-grouse habitat for oil and gas drilling. They also eliminate science-based habitat standards for grazing in sage-grouse habitat and make it easier for BLM officials to waive protective buffers around sage-grouse mating and nesting areas, called leks.
“This could drive the greater sage grouse to extinction and forever damage the American West,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Trump and former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt are blatantly rigging the system to benefit oil and gas operators. This will spell disaster for the vanishing sage grouse and for hundreds of species that depend on unspoiled public land.”
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. Protecting the grouse and its habitat benefits a host of other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, including pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagle, native trout and nearly 200 migratory and resident bird species.
“In 2015 many people wanted to believe that the Obama-era plans were enough to save the sage grouse,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate at WildEarth Guardians. “But the wiggle room and discretion built into these plans made their implementation subject to the influence of industry. Now even the tentative measures of buffer distances and disturbance boundaries are subject to change.”
The changes finalized today amount to a systematic undermining of some of the most important safeguards in the 2015 BLM sage grouse plans. These include:
- Opening 225,000 formerly protected acres of public land in Colorado to new oil and gas leasing;
- Eliminating requirements to prioritize oil and gas development outside of sage grouse habitat on 4 million acres of public land in Utah;
- Eliminating or weakening requirements to prioritize oil and gas development outside of sage grouse habitat from 26.2 million acres of habitat in Wyoming, the bird’s last, best stronghold;
- Removing specific management requirements for livestock grazing and downplaying the impacts this land use has on the species.
“The Trump administration began dismantling these restrictions as soon as it could, removing each layer of conservation management the Obama-era plans and mitigation policies provided,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. “Now grouse populations are in decline across the range and have nearly disappeared from the Washington State and the Dakotas. The trend is ominous.”
As many as 16 million greater sage grouse once ranged across 297 million acres of sagebrush grasslands, 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 U.S. 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.
American Bird Conservancy is dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. We take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife.
WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit conservation organization whose mission is to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West.