The good, the bad and the ugly: A year in sage-grouse conservation

Anniversaries are usually occasions for joy and celebration. In the case of the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled, chicken-sized brown bird, we may have more to look on somberly than joyously.

In the year since the landmark conservation plans that conserved 67 million acres of prime grouse habitat were released, we have seen repeated attempts from some in Congress to stall or delay implementation of the plans.


The sage-grouse land management plans put forth by the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior and the Forest Service represent public land management at its best. They were the result of decades of work between western states, private landowners, local stakeholders and federal agencies. Because of the conservation efforts, U.S. Fish and Wildlife determined that the bird didn’t warrant a listing under the Endangered Species Act. In effect, the agency said that the land management plans in place are enough to keep the sage-grouse from sliding over the brink.

Learn more about how the plans protected the sagebrush sea.

 Any attacks to undermine the immense effort put into these plans ignore the meaningful solutions and common ground these groups were able to achieve.  

Attacks from Congress

Some in Congress have exploited unrelated must-pass legislation to undermine these conservation efforts. Some of the most egregious examples are:

Time and again, attacks from the House and the Senate have attempted to stall the BLM sage-grouse plans and meddle with the BLM’s ability to implement or manage by blocking funding. Then Congress turns around and points the finger back at the agency for mismanagement. It is a dizzying saga to follow.

Credit: USDA

This pattern of attacking the sage-grouse plans ties into a larger effort by western lawmakers to transfer ownership of federal lands to states. The idea that our public lands should be open for everyone to experience is under attack by people with misplaced ideas that public lands belong to them and their allies in Washington, D.C.

Not only is the “public lands takeover” unpopular, the fundamental argument, which paints the federal land managers as inadequate, doesn’t make sense. We know that when public lands have been taken over by states to manage, most times states have had to sell off the lands just to generate revenue.

If states were to sell off critical habitat, this would put the survival of the sage-grouse in jeopardy. The species is very sensitive to development activity encroaching into their mating areas. In the federal plans, road-building, oil, gas and renewable energy development are all prohibited in key areas. If state lawmakers sold off lands for whatever purpose that makes the most money, the bird would suffer tremendously as its habitat is dissected. That path is bad news for the sage-grouse.  

Credit: Bryant Olsen, flickr

The way the sage-grouse conservation will work best is through continued collaboration and consideration for all users of public lands. Ranchers, sportsmen, local elected officials, business owners and the energy industry worked together with state and federal land managers to craft these plans. We have to respect that tremendous effort and give them a chance to succeed before we let some in Congress dismantle them under the guise of leadership. BLM’s recently issued guidance is further proof that Congress should acknowledge all interests across the West and let the plans work. 


First photo by: Mason Cummings