Interior Department celebrates sage grouse anniversary with changes to plans

BLM/Bob Wick

The fate of the iconic sage grouse and its fragile ecosystem of over 350 species could be in jeopardy, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke looks to move ahead with actions on recommendations.

To celebrate the two-year anniversary of the sage grouse conservation plans – the largest landscape-level conservation effort ever undertaken that involved years of collaboration and hard work by 11 western states and their governors, multiple federal agencies and stakeholders throughout the West – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke plans to chop them up, piece by piece.

The historic conservation plans, which were initially announced on September 22, 2015 protecting the iconic sage-grouse and its fragile ecosystem of over 350 species were so strong, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the greater sage-grouse did not warrant a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

But now, two years after the Interior made such a massive forward step in conservation, the Secretary is setting the stage to take a subsequent giant leap back and completely erase it all.

In a move that shows he ignored the weight of opinions and studies of scientists, the Secretary is pushing for such recommendations as population-based conservation and captive breeding, practices that experts have concluded will not work for the sage-grouse. 

Rather than taking nearly a decade of conservation work and throwing it away, Secretary Zinke should be pushing to support the continued implementation of plans and the diverse stakeholders who helped craft them (including state wildlife agencies, sportsmen and women, ranchers and conservationists).

Along with the two-year anniversary of the plans, here is a look at what else could be expected to happen on September 22, 2017, if Secretary Zinke proceeds with allowing the plans to be dismantled:

Segregation Orders

When the sage grouse plans were announced two years ago, part of the plans included a two-year halt on all mining activities. On September 22, 2017, the mineral withdrawal segregation orders expire, allowing mining companies to make claims to parcels of land that were previously protected by the plans, pending a final decision by the Department of the Interior.

Policy Changes

The Secretary’s memo indicates that DOI may move forward to change current guidance and direction that guides how the plans are enforced in the coming days or weeks. These changes could range from how different types of habitat are defined on maps to how oil and gas leasing and drilling are managed. And DOI has made no commitment to engage the public before taking these actions.

Amendments

Actions to make significant changes to the plans could be moving forward in the near future. The process to amend the key elements of the plans were expected to start in weeks or months, but they could be moving more quickly without input from stakeholders on whether they are even needed.

Mitigation

Every hammer blow that Interior takes to mitigation is something that will continue to hamper overall mitigation efforts. Recent executive orders and secretarial orders revoked a presidential memorandum on mitigation, while another secretarial order told the Bureau of Land Management and other Interior departments to look at their mitigation policies and see what they could essentially get rid of. While sage grouse plans don’t explicitly rely on this guidance, the fact the administration is going after mitigation is evident and could also indicate an intent to undermine this key part of the grouse plans.

More on mitigation

Mitigation is incredibly important to the sage grouse conservation plans in terms of how they work and how western states are dealing with them. As part of the plans requirements, harm to grouse habitat must be avoided, minimized or otherwise mitigated.

Through their authority to manage wildlife and working with local landowners, many states have developed ways to ensure mitigation is sufficient. Some states created mitigation banks and others habitat exchanges, which provide a way for companies harming habitat to be matched with ranchers or landowners who can protect and restore other habitat. And the plans further directed that, where approved actions harm habitat, mitigation must achieve a net gain, meaning that the improvements and replacements to habitat must come out ahead.

This approach was developed because sage-grouse habitat was already so degraded and destroyed, that the concept of the plans was to not only stop the loss, but also increase the quantity and quality of habitat, so that the sage-grouse and its habitat could be safeguarded for the long term. In addition, since the plans only incorporate protections for 67 of the 167 million acres of grouse habitat, it is even more important that we protect, restore and increase the habitat that we can affect. With most activities still permitted under the plans, this is a reasonable ask.

The plans need action, not change

When the west was settled the sage grouse numbered 16 million. Today, due to wildfire, invasive species, and industrial development, the habitat has been reduced and fragmented so much that populations no longer reach even one-half million.

As an indicator species, the sage grouse serves as the key barometer for the health of an entire ecosystem of species, including the gold eagle, elk, pronghorn, and mule deer. Current plans reduce the threat across 90 percent of the sage grouse’s most important habitat, while still permitting a broad spectrum of multiple use, representing conservation and collaboration work at its finest.

The existing plans do not need to be removed or overhauled, they need to be allowed to work. And unfortunately, this is a continuous theme we are seeing in the Interior Department’s agenda – sell out our public lands to oil, gas and coal companies at an enormous cost to Americans.

A new report released this week by The Wilderness Society addresses this exact issue, identifying 15 unique places found on public lands that are at high risk of drilling, mining and other development. Among the list is the Owyhee Desert sagebrush ecosystem in northern Nevada, identified as an especially valuable habitat (a “Sagebrush Focal Area”) by federal and state wildlife agencies.

According to the ‘Too Wild to Drill’ report, the BLM “should ensure any changes to the [sage grouse conservation] plans maintain their overall structure to protect the most valuable habitat from the biggest threats. Plans to protect sage-grouse and other wildlife habitat have overwhelming general support and provide certainty for counties, states and federal land manager.”

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