Feds Fail Sage Grouse
Endangered Species Act Protections Denied; Land Use Plans Unfolding as Landmark Disappointment
WASHINGTON, D.C. – After years of delay, today the federal government denied much needed Endangered Species Act protections to the imperiled greater sage grouse. The decision was coupled with the release of final land management plans aimed at protecting imperiled grouse populations across 10 western states. Instead of ensuring a future for the greater sage grouse, however, the final plans are replete with crippling flaws and loopholes rendering them inadequate to address threats from industrial development, livestock grazing, and invasive weeds.
“The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” Like other polticians before her, today Secretary Jewell declared victory before the battle is actually won,” said Erik Molvar wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The government’s plans fall far short of ensuring this iconic, imperiled bird is protected from the serious threats posed by fossil fuel extraction, grazing and development.”
In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management assembled a team of sage grouse experts to draft a science-based blueprint for protection measures necessary to protect and recover sage grouse populations. In 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assembled state officials to determine what areas were “essential” for sage grouse persistence designate them as ‘Priority Areas for Conservation.’ In the end, the new federal plan amendments ignore both sets of recommendations and adopt conservation measures far weaker over a geography of designated Priority Habitats far smaller than those proposed by expert scientists.
“The sage grouse planning effort began with great ideas and sound science, but what came out the other end of the sausage grinder is a weak collection of compromises that will not and cannot conserve the species,” said Molvar. “Sage grouse are facing real and imminent threats from fossil fuel production and inappropriate livestock grazing, and the birds need mandatory, science-based solutions if we have any hope to reverse more than 100 years of declines.”
The federal plans suffer from four crippling flaws:
- Some 16 million acres of Priority Areas for Conservation were stripped from the final Priority Habitats designated in the new federal plan amendments. As detailed in a GIS analysis by WildEarth Guardians, Nevada was left with tiny fragments of Priority Habitat in its federal plan, about half of what the state itself originally proposed for protection.
- Federal experts reviewed the science and recommended closing Priority Habitats to future leasing for oil and gas drilling, but instead these most sensitive sage grouse habitats were re-opened to leasing after years of a moratorium on leasing.
- Priority Habitat protections from oil and gas drilling are much weaker in Wyoming than any other state, despite the fact that Wyoming faces the greatest threats from drilling and more than 40% of the worldwide sage grouse habitat is in this state.
- Virtually all sage grouse protections in the new plans come with the option for exceptions and waivers, loopholes that have been abused in the past to the detriment of sage grouse.
Any one of these problems is serious enough to undermine efforts to maintain and recover sage grouse populations, and makes listing under the Endangered Species Act more necessary.
Over half of the remaining sage grouse populations are on federal lands, making the decision to withhold adequate protections on BLM and Forest Service administered public lands a key failure preventing a finding that ‘adequate regulatory mechanisms’ exist to protect the birds and avoid an ESA listing. Sage grouse populations are down 27% from 2010 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally determined the sage grouse warranted ESA protections. At that time the Service found those protections were precluded by other priorities. Industrial projects and oil and gas leasing, which were largely on hold over the past six years while federal sage grouse plans were being developed, will now move forward. Drilling will now resume in grouse habitat under the new, weak plans.
“In the final sage grouse plans, the Obama administration threw science out the window in favor of political expediency,” said Molvar. “Strong, science-based plans could have neutralized the serious threats that sage grouse are facing, but instead we have weak plans that cannot justify the decision to deny Endangered Species Act protections.”