Biden administration proposes protections for US West sage-grouse, to divided response from conservationists

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a proposal Thursday to prioritize the conservation of greater sage-grouse on public lands — aiming to reverse habitat loss for an iconic bird of the U.S. West and restore the health of surrounding ecosystems.

The proposal, a draft environmental impact statement, analyzes several alternatives for managing the greater sage-grouse habitat on BLM-administered public lands in 10 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Greater sage-grouse, known for their unique spiked plumage and chunky, round bodies, have long been suffering from habitat loss due in part to the effects of climate change, including drought conditions, more frequent wildfires and invasive species, according to the BLM.

These birds — which once numbered in the millions but have now plunged to fewer than 800,000 — rely on a Mountain West shrub called sagebrush and may require up to 40 square miles of intact landscape to stay healthy, the agency explained.

“The majesty of the West and its way of life are at stake,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement. “Sagebrush lands are places where people work and play, and they are the headwaters for the West’s major rivers.”

Protecting sagebrush, a critical source of food and habitat, is therefore essential not only for the birds, but also for other species, including mule deer, pronghorns and pygmy rabbits, the bureau noted.

The BLM in total manages the biggest single share of sage-grouse habitat in the U.S., encompassing almost 67 million acres of a 145-million-acre total.

The six alternatives within the draft environmental impact statement build upon plans that the BLM adopted in 2015 and revised in 2019, while incorporating updated science and adjusting for changing climate conditions.

In drafting these options, the BLM considered about 1,900 comments during an initial public scoping period, as well as information shared by federal, state, local and tribal entities.

The bureau’s preferred plan of action, also known as the fifth alternative, focuses on balancing greater sage-grouse conservation with public land use. This alternative lies between the most restrictive protection plan and the option that has the loosest limits on energy and mineral development.

The preferred alternative would keep new fluid mineral leasing open, with very few no-surface-occupancy stipulations in so-called “Priority Habitat Management Areas.” New mining of saleable materials, which include construction resources such as sand, gravel, dirt and rock, would be closed in most priority habitat areas, aside from the expansion of existing pits.

For wind and solar development and major rights-of-way projects, this alternative would have “less direct avoidance and provides more opportunities for considering compensatory mitigation” — the creation of habitat elsewhere to offset adverse impacts.

The other five alternatives included in the draft provide a range of options regarding mineral leases, oil and gas leasing, wind and solar facility development, livestock grazing and wild horse and burro herd management.

The most restrictive option, the third alternative, would grant the most stringent protections to greater sage-grouse. The BLM would shutter its habitats to new mineral leasing and livestock grazing, while eliminating overlapping wild horse and burro management zones.

While acknowledging that this option would provide the strongest defense for sage-grouse, the BLM analysis stressed it would also result in “making public lands unavailable to grazing” and require increased fencing to separate federal and nonfederal properties.

Such measures, the analysis argued, could result “in possible habitat fragmentation, increased collision risks, increased opportunities for [greater sage-grouse] predators.” A reduction in grazing, meanwhile, could result in a buildup of fine fuels and increase wildfire risk, the document added.

In response to the draft environmental impact statement, certain conservation and sportsmen’s groups praised what they deemed “a renewed commitment to safeguarding the intricate web of life supported by the sagebrush ecosystem.”

“For those of us that live in the West, we realize how important it is to take this bird’s steep decline seriously,” Alison Holloran, executive director of Audubon Rockies, said in a statement. “We need to make some meaningful changes and double-down on working together to conserve the bird and ensure a future for the West.”

Bobby McEnaney, director of nature for Natural Resources Defense Council, characterized the greater sage-grouse as “a bellwether for the entire Mountain West ecosystem.”

“These urgently needed protections will go a long way toward heading off the extinction of this iconic species,” McEnaney said. “There’s more to do, but this is an important step toward protecting the sage grouse and the resources it relies upon.”

Kaden McArthur, government relations manager for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, emphasized the need for healthy sagebrush ecosystems for the survival of “other species that rely on that core habitat such as pronghorn and mule deer.”

But representatives of other conservation groups slammed the bureau for its preferred alternative selection, noting that other options favored millions more acres of protective designation.

“The proposed areas of critical environmental concern offer hope that some habitat will be protected, but what is proposed is far too small to recover the sage grouse,” Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy said in a statement.

Randi Spivak, public lands policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, stressed that the BLM’s preferred option “will fail these iconic birds once again and keep them on an extinction trajectory.”

“This does virtually nothing to strengthen protections, ensuring the grouse will continue their downward spiral,” Spivak added.

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