Hope ahead for the sage-grouse

No matter which way you look at it greater sage-grouse are in trouble. With population declines of over 90% from a century ago, and with remaining habitats under continued pressure from threats such as oil and gas development, the greater sage-grouse is teetering on the brink. In recognition of this, the Department of the Interior made two announcements last week that could lead to great improvements in ensuring that the sage-grouse — and the nearly 350 additional species, that along with heritage and economies of rural communities are dependent on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem — is protected and recovered.

The first announcement from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, stated that the greater sage-grouse is headed towards extinction and deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, because around 250 other species have been determined to be in greater threat of extinction than the sage-grouse, the bird will put on the ESA’s “Candidate” list. This decision serves as a warning to everyone — from state and federal agencies, to ranchers, farmers, and conservation organizations — that actions to protect this bird and its habitat must be taken now or the greater sage-grouse could face further decline and possible extinction.

As a candidate species, the greater sage-grouse will be reviewed annually by the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether more protection for the species is necessary, such as a full endangered or threatened listing under the ESA. In addition to adding the greater sage-grouse to the Candidate list for protection under the ESA, BLM Director Bob Abbey announced that the BLM will identify and map priority sage-grouse habitat across the western states. These maps will be the basis for more comprehensive guidance on sage-grouse, including state-specific policies tailored to local sage-grouse populations. Until this guidance is complete, BLM staff have the discretion to provide additional protections for the bird and its habitats when evaluating and approving Resource Management Plans or energy and transmission projects.

The actions that BLM can take in priority habitat include:

  • Withholding or deferring oil and gas and geothermal lease parcels
  • Attaching lease stipulations and/or conditions of approval for energy projects
  • Denying permits for energy projects, including renewable energy and oil shale, that could negatively impact sage-grouse populations
  • Rerouting transmission projects to avoid priority sage-grouse habitats.

In his announcement, Secretary Salazar pointed out, "We know that without good planning, energy activities can impact the sage grouse…the emphasis here is on smart from the start. We plan in advance."

Being “smart from the start” is something that The Wilderness Society has long advocated for in fossil fuel extraction and more recently as a necessary component of sustainable renewable energy development. With careful planning in the front end, we can be sure that all types of energy development proceed in a way that protects the special places, key habitats, and culturally and economically important landscapes that our western communities — and the greater sage-grouse — depend on for survival.

As we learn more about the mapping of habitat and future BLM management plan’s protection for the sage-grouse I will share the details with all of you. For now we can take a deep breath and move to the next step in protecting this vita species.

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