Like most westerners, the Greater Sage-Grouse thrives in wide-open spaces. How to preserve this habitat while still allowing westerners to make their living off the land has been a matter of debate for nearly two decades. Yesterday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service announced their final environmental reviews for proposed plans to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse. The plans, which come with 14 individual strategies customized to different regions, could be the key to keeping populations of sage-grouse healthy enough to avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act.
“The BLM has never done anything like this before in its history,” says Executive Director of Audubon Rockies Alison Holloran, who has worked on sage-grouse issues since 1997 and conducted some of the original science detailing threats to this bird. “Historically, the BLM has always functioned on a much smaller scale.” What makes this action so unique, according to Holloran, is the BLM’s decision to partner with state, agricultural, conservation, and economic sectors—including industry giants, which the federal agency has often avoided in the past. The plans, which Holloran described as “very good news,” will conserve brush ecosystems across 10 U.S. states. “That’s almost the entire West,” she says. (Washington, the eleventh state to host sage-grouse, was not included because none of its sage-grouse habitat overlaps with federally-owned lands.)
BLM’s plan presents three essential ways to protect these Western birds. The first two are heavily focused on maintaining and restoring the habitat upon which Greater Sage-Grouse rely. Under the new plans, the BLM will more actively monitor development on the sage-grouse’s core habitat, in hopes of limiting noise disturbances and habitat fragmentation, which is catastrophic for the bird. For example, the plans will identify critically important leks—the places where these chicken-like birds perform their mating dance—and in some locations, will create buffer zones up to three miles in width to protect the mating birds when they’re most vulnerable.
BLM will work with local stakeholders to both protect and improve habitat condition. BLM will also honor all “valid, existing rights” to land held by developers, even those held by oil and gas developers. Of the 165 million acres of sage-grouse habitat, the BLM directly manages 60 million acres—of that, 2 million acres will be affected by the creation of buffer zones around leks.
The third requirement is to reduce threats of wildfires, which is essential to protecting the bird’s habitat. To accomplish this, BLM will attempt to curb the spread of invasive cheatgrass and other species, better restore fire-affected land, and better respond to wildfires. Often, invasive grasses take hold of land after grazing livestock move through, so collaborating with ranchers is critical if wildfires are to be contained.
Though the proposal focuses on the sage-grouse, all actions taken to benefit the grouse will benefit 350 other species that also depend on this sagebrush steppe, says Brian Rutledge, who heads Audubon’s efforts in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain west. During the announcement at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell quoted a rancher: “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”
When we protect the sage-grouse’s habitat, she said, we are preserving the West’s economy. One of the biggest economic booms in the West right now is energy development via wind farms and oil and gas drilling. The new proposal is a good attempt to find the right balance between the economic needs and the needs of the bird, says Rutledge.
“We are learning how to make economies work while also making conservation work,” Wyoming governor Matt Mead (R) said during the announcement. “This is not just about the sage-grouse,” he said. “We have found the skeleton key that opens the door to how we can deal with endangered species as a whole.”
While many expressed optimism at the proposal, some organizations wished the BLM had gone further. “Much more is needed to restore America’s sagebrush steppe,” Amanda Jahshan wrote on the Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog yesterday. Jahshan argues that the Interior’s plan does not sufficiently tackle the root cause of the wildfires—which she argues is decades of inaction over the ecological consequences of grazers. “Unfortunately the plans do little to address how best to manage livestock grazing in a manner that will further reduce the spread of cheatgrass, and consequently devastating wildfires,” she writes.
The BLM’s plans for federal lands are just one piece of the puzzle—the remaining 100 million acres of sage-grouse habitat is owned by other parts of the federal government, state governments, or private entities. States are required to put forth their own plans to protect the bird, which will be approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. So far, only Wyoming’s has been deemed adequate. The rest of the states must submit plans to U.S. Fish and Wildlife in advance of the September 2015 final ruling on whether or not the bird will be listed federally.