Federal Sage Grouse Plan in Utah Leaves Birds at Risk
Plan Fails to Protect Against Oil and Gas Drilling and Grazing Threats
James Catlin, Wild Utah Project, 801.328.3550 | email@example.com
Allison Jones, Wild Utah Project, 801.328.3550 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin Mueller, Utah Environmental Congress, 801.466.4055 | email@example.com
Salt Lake City – Conservationists today highlighted major problems with the federal approach to sage grouse conservation in recently proposed Utah land-use plan amendments. The plan amendments are part of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service efforts to prevent listing the imperiled sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act by ensuring adequate protections on public lands.
After reviewing nine other released land use plan revisions for sage grouse conservation, Erik Molvar with WildEarth Guardians concluded, "These Utah plan revisions offer the weakest protections from oil and gas drilling that we’ve seen proposed anywhere in sage grouse habitat."
“Federal land managers have long promised to take care of wildlife,” said Jim Catlin of the Wild Utah Project. “However, because this stewardship promise was voluntary, wildlife remained a low priority resulting in widespread degradation that led us to today's crisis for the greater sage grouse. The good news is we know how to correct this stewardship failure, but to get there the federal agencies need to change.” Bureau of Land Managent's Utah plan revisions set the right general goals for sage grouse conservation, but fail to deliver strong standards to protect the most sensitive habitat. Important habitats in places like the Uinta Basin are excluded from Priority Habitat designations even though they are the most vulnerable to destruction, and even those areas proposed as Priority Habitat will be open to industrial uses that are too destructive to allow for the long-term survival of sage grouse.
The Sage-Grouse National Technical Team, comprised of leading experts in sage grouse conservation, issued a report recommending that new industrial activity not be allowed within 4 miles of lek sites for currently existing oil and gas leases, and that agencies keep maximum well density below one well pad per square mile and maintain habitat disturbances below a maximum of 3 percent of the total land area. None of these recommendations, designed to stabilize sage grouse populations, were incorporated into the agencies’ preferred plan. "Ignoring the advice of scientists and their own experts, BLM proposes inadequate protections in Utah's most important sage grouse habitats,” added Catlin.
The inadequacy of these plan amendments in protecting sage grouse habitat in Utah from oil and gas drilling mirrors national trends. The conservationists’ analysis was shared by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in an October 4th speech on sage grouse and Endangered Species issues in Washington. “The BLM, long subservient to the oil and gas industry, has already given over huge swaths of sagebrush steppe to the fossil fuel industry,” said former Secretary Babbitt. “It is past time for the agency to set meaningful regulatory standards requiring the use of modern technology to minimize damage to public lands.” Babbitt went on to admonish federal regulators against “endorsing inadequate state standards and by leaving local managers free to selectively adopt standards.”
Bureau of Land Management has the authority to regulate the degree and type of future impacts on lands already leased by oil and gas companies, but has largely failed to do so. “Much of the most important sage grouse habitat in eastern Utah is already leased for oil and gas development,” said Allison Jones with Wild Utah Project. “If the oil and gas industry is allowed to pursue high-density drilling on leases they already have, these lands will lose their value as strongholds for sage grouse. And in the Uinta Basin, this draft plan offers little protection to any sage grouse habitat, allowing habitat destruction up to and sometimes on top of critical brooding and strutting areas."
Erik Molvar noted, “if the federal agencies don’t apply protections buffering sensitive habitats from drilling activity and road construction, and limit the allowable density of well pads, the sage grouse populations in these areas will be lost. We can’t afford that kind of outcome. The oil and gas industry shouldn’t be allowed to wipe out the last sage grouse strongholds in eastern Utah.”
Energy development isn't the only threat facing sage grouse. “Most sagebrush habitat today lacks the critical native grass and forbs that provide food and cover especially during nesting and brooding times,” said Jim Catlin. “Up to now, BLM's range program hasn't considered sage grouse in making grazing decisions. A recent administrative court decision (the Duck Creek Appeal) recognized this problem. The new proposed plan notes sage grouse habitat needs, but fails to adequately tie grazing decisions to meeting those needs.”
“Remaining sage grouse populations in Utah are especially small and fragmented, and this bird has already disappeared from the vast majority of sagebrush habitats across the state, sending a warning that the natural balance of the sagebrush sea has been disrupted,” added Molvar. “We need to start restoring degraded habitats so sage grouse have the unspoiled space they need to survive. In addition to solving the problems posed by oil and gas drilling, we need to ensure that grazing and land stewardship practices focus on sage grouse needs.”
“By protecting sage grouse, we protect the land and water that all of us – from hunters and hikers to anglers and ranchers – value and enjoy,” said Jones. “If it’s done right, this new plan could offer an opportunity to work together to conserve our western heritage, working farms and ranches, and wildlife so that future generations can experience and appreciate them as we do today.”
The groups urged federal agencies to adopt tougher, science-based protections for sage grouse, because recovering the bird is in the interests of all.
"What benefits sage grouse benefits all of us," said Kevin Mueller with Utah Environmental Congress. "The bird’s decline and widespread loss of habitat are warning us that things are out of balance and that our western lands, clean air and water, and wildlife are at risk. If everyone works together we can establish common-sense safeguards that protect wildlife habitat and economic opportunities for us and for future generations."
Available online, https://www.law.ucdavis.edu/centers/environmental/conferences/files/Bruce-Babbitt-Keynote-Text.pdf.