Let the sage grouse conservation plans work

Greater sage grouse.

Bob Wick, BLM

A sage grouse review team is set to deliver their report to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this week.

It took nearly a decade of conservation efforts to protect the iconic sage grouse, its fragile ecosystem of over 350 species, and a billion dollar plus regional recreational economy. And yet, this past June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered his staff to “review” (and presumably amend) bipartisan plans to protect the sagebrush habitat in just 60 days.

Zinke believed this rushed timeline was appropriate for his staff – notably led by of those in favor of increased access to federal lands for fossil fuel extraction – to substitute for years of scientific research and collaboration among federal biologists, Republican and Democratic governors, local and state agencies, regional conservationists, ranchers, hunters, and other interest groups.

In September 2015, when then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the historic landscape conservation plans to protect the sagebrush habitat across 11 states, she stated that the plans were sufficient to preclude the need to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

To put into perspective the dire situation the sage grouse was facing, when the west was settled the species numbered approximately 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 half of one million.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considers the sage grouse an “indicator” species,” meaning they serve 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 sage grouse’s most important habitat, representing conservation work at its finest.

The existing plans do not need to be removed or updated, they need to be allowed to work. This review is motivated by an unfortunate theme in the Interior Department’s agenda – sell out our public lands to oil, gas and coal companies at enormous cost to Americans.

Zinke and Interior vs the Facts

The secretarial order contains several provisions that have little basis in science and exhibit the Interior Department's complete ignorance when it comes to the years of research and collaboration existing plans required. Below is a look at statements by Zinke and the Interior Department and the facts.

Interior Department: “The Secretary has asked this interagency team of experts from the BLM, FWS, and U.S. Geological Survey to focus on addressing the principal threats to rangeland health and sage grouse habitat – invasive grasses and wildland fire.”

FACT: The directive only identifies invasive grasses and wildfire, which are primarily a threat in the Great Basin. Oil and gas development is the primary threat in most of the Rocky Mountain states, except for Montana, where the principal threat is agricultural conversion. And development and habitat fragmentation are also priority threats identified by the states and the FWS.

Interior Department: “The [review] team will also consider creative approaches and ideas, including a captive breeding program, setting population targets by state, and opportunities to improve state involvement.”

FACT: The best available science indicates captive breeding should never be considered or used as mitigation for habitat impacts under any circumstance. Captive breeding has been used as a last resort for some imperiled species when all other efforts have failed, however we are nowhere near that point with sage grouse. There is no credible evidence this tool will work in the long-term for sage-grouse and especially in the absence of a quality habitat. As for population targets, the habitat must remain the focus of conservation planning, while using population indices like lek counts (counting the number of males at breeding sites) to track bird response to actions. The two simply cannot be decoupled.

Interior Department: “The team will be asked to identify plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on the potential for energy and other development on public lands.

FACT: Most of the vital habitat is not in areas with strong oil and gas potential. Independent analysis of the plans found that the majority of federal lands within the priority sage grouse have zero to low potential for oil and gas, solar, and wind energy development. And the BLM’s own estimates found that approximately 90 percent of high to medium oil and gas potential and 97 percent of high wind potential is outside of federally-managed priority habitat.

Zinke: “While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor.”

FACT: Multiple studies have found that the greater sage grouse habitat generates more than $623 million for western communities every year, just from recreation visits. Hikers, bikers, campers, hunters, and anglers all visit these open spaces, and bring tourism dollars to local communities. This spending results in total economic output of over $1 billion for the U.S. economy. Losing the sage grouse to the endangered species list, by adjusting existing conservation plans, would be catastrophic to local economies.

And states have been important partners in the development of the plans since 2011. The federal plans build upon the foundation for sage grouse conservation initiated by a number of states, including Wyoming’s core area strategy, Idaho’s three-tiered conservation approach, and Oregon’s “all lands, all threats” approach.

Let the plans work

Zinke will receive the report from his sage grouse review team soon. Tell him he should focus on implementation and let the existing plans work. By attempting to review or change these plans that have already proved themselves, an endangered species listing may be unavoidable.

The last thing states and communities need is an agency in Washington conducting a rushed, internal “review” process, and substituting the judgement of special interests and politicians for years of hard work and investment by stakeholders across eleven states. Zinke inherited policies that were well on their way to making our public lands and waters work better for all stakeholders, and now he’s creating uncertainty for industries and communities that need to plan for a prosperous future.