New state and fed efforts to protect sage grouse

Plans aim to keep the wide-ranging bird off the endangered list.


 The greater sage grouse has been lingering in the endangered species waiting room since 2010, when the feds determined that its listing was warranted—but deferred it because other species were more urgently imperiled. If the greater sage grouse does make it out of purgatory and onto the endangered species list, energy development, farming, cattle ranching and recreation across 11 states will feel the impact.

The final decision was due in September this year (thanks to a lawsuit forcing the Fish and Wildlife Service to get more rare species out of the waiting room). But in a bid to delay it, Republicans added a rider to this year’s massive spending bill that bars the FWS from issuing any grouse-related rules. Riders of this sort typically persist for many years, even decades, but Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says that won’t keep the Fish and Wildlife Service from moving forward on plans to protect the bird.

Greater sage grouse in the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. Tom Koerner/USFWS.
But unless and until there’s an ESA listing, federal protections for the bird will happen primarily through the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. These two agencies manage most of the remaining sage grouse habitat in the West, and are in the process of revising about 100 land-use plans covering 67 million acres specifically to improve grouse management and take better care of that habitat.

And protection also comes from dozens of state and local level plans, cooperative and collaborative efforts involving landowners, state agencies and other stakeholders. With the rider, states are using the extra time to prove that their plans provide sufficient protection to the grouse (the spending bill also gives the BLM $15 million to support those state plans). And those states are showing signs of increasing desperation.

Last week, Idaho announced a major push to protect sage grouse. It already has a 2012 plan that covers millions of acres. Now it’s protecting another 700,000 acres of prime grouse habitat on state land, to “further demonstrate Idaho's commitment to conserving sage grouse to prevent a listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act." However, it’s earmarked just $250,000 to put its new plan into effect, plus another $500,000 for other grouse conservation efforts.

E&E News reports:

The draft plan, developed by the Idaho Department of Lands, would still allow for numerous activities on the endowment lands, such as oil and gas development and wind farms, grazing and mining. But it would impose lease stipulations, such as a slightly more than half-mile buffer around leks, and the adoption of best management practices, such as noise limits on drilling activity to protect the bird. It also focuses on addressing threats to grouse habitat from wildfires and invasive plant and animal species.

Utah’s upping its game also. Earlier this month, the state’s governor, Gary Herbert, directed agencies to implement a conservation plan that would protect 10,000 acres of sage grouse habitat yearly, via incentive-based programs, increase total habitat by 50,000 acres, and would aim to keep a breeding population of at least 4,100 males.

Greater sage grouse in Larand, Colorado. By Flickr user Tony Morris.

The federal plans seem likely to offer stronger protections than do many of the state and local efforts. For example, in Utah, the BLM’s draft plans would require a 4-mile buffer for new oil and gas development, and in Oregon, more than 5 million acres of public land would be designated as a “focal” area for grouse conservation, where development is discouraged.

"The BLM plans are going to be the only rules out there (on public lands)," one lobbyist told Greenwire. "Those will essentially list the sage grouse anyway."

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Jewell is addressing another threat to sage grouse— wildfire. Sagebrush and rangeland habitat in Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah and Nevada have been damaged by intense fires fueled by invasive cheatgrass. Earlier this year, Jewell issued a secretarial order calling for a comprehensive strategy to reduce the size and intensity of range fires, improve response to fires, and control cheatgrass and other flammable exotics.

The Department of Agriculture also just announced that the federal farm bill would provide $200 million in new funding for improving grouse range, at the same time that it reported that its 2010 Sage Grouse Initiative “engaged more than 1,000 ranchers to conserve 4.4 million acres of bird habitat, all while maintaining vibrant working landscapes.”

And it’s not just about the bird, of course. The “sagebrush sea” that supports it also provides a home for sage thrashers, sagebrush lizards, pygmy rabbits, pronghorn antelope. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 94 species of birds, 87 mammals, 71 spiders, 58 reptiles, 52 aphids, 32 gall midges and 24 lichens depend on some 30 varieties of sagebrush.

Back in 2002 we ran “Last Dance for the Sage Grouse?”. Its conclusion is, if anything, even more valid today:  

"I wish I could go to the ranchers and land agencies and say, 'It's going to be okay,” says biologist Jessica Young. “But I can't. If we're going to sustain this ecosystem, there are going to be real economic impacts. That's the choice we face. I keep trying to get people back to the table, because we don't have a lot of time."

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.

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