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Time is now to prove that federal protections are enough
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A coalition of local, regional, and national conservation groups submitted detailed critiques this week of the federal government’s sage grouse planning effort in Utah, concluding that weak standards will need to be strengthened if Endangered Species Act listing is to be averted in 2015.
“What’s being proposed by the Bureau of Land Management does not go far enough in really ensuring that sage-grouse populations in Utah remain viable for the foreseeable future, and that must include a future with the very real threat of climate change in our sage-grouse habitat,” said Allison Jones of the Wild Utah Project. “Amending the plans is a decent first step in making good on important stewardship promises for sage-grouse, but we want assurance that the final plan will implement the lessons learned from the best possible science, and not current and future politics.”
The plan fails to apply appropriate limits to fossil fuel extraction in the most sensitive sage grouse habitats. The proposed plan amendment would apply 4-mile “No Surface Occupancy” buffers to protect breeding and nesting habitats in future lease sales, but offers no additional protections at all for existing oil and gas leases, which cover tens of thousands of acres of prime sage grouse habitats in Utah.
“The science is crystal clear regarding the limits on industrial development that sage grouse need to survive: limiting oil and gas fields to one pad per square mile, keeping roads and industrial facilities at least 4 miles away from the leks where breeding activity occurs, and limiting human disturbance to 3 percent in sensitive sage grouse habitats,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The federal proposal applies none of these standards to existing oil and gas leases in the Utah plan amendment, even though the agency’s own experts have recommended that such measures be mandatory. Under the proposed plan, drilling that occurs on existing leases will drive many sage grouse populations extinct before new lease terms take effect.”
The proposal advanced by the State of Utah is substantially weaker than the proposed BLM plan amendment, offering essentially no protections at all for sage grouse, and is a blueprint for Endangered Species Act listing.
“The State of Utah’s plan seeks to protect big industries but does little for sage grouse,” added Molvar. “That’s the kind of thinking that is driving sage grouse and other types of wildlife to the brink of extinction in Utah.”
Now is the time to adopt solutions that meet the twin Endangered Species Act requirements of sound science and certainty of application. A balanced approach must include strong protections for grouse in their most sensitive habitats.
“Conserving the Greater sage-grouse requires protecting habitat and maintaining the wide-open spaces that characterize Utah,” concluded Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy. “Most priority sage-grouse habitat in Utah is already heavily degraded and grouse are only persisting in the few relatively undisturbed blocks of sagebrush. These areas need to be conserved.”
The groups submitting the comments included Wild Utah Project, WildEarth Guardians, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Prairie Hills Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, Bear River Watershed Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, Western Wildlife Conservancy, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.