The current federal plan for Greater Sage-Grouse conservation was finalized in 2015, following years of successful, cooperative and bipartisan efforts. This plan has prevented the need to list this iconic species under the Endangered Species Act, and protected 67 million acres of habitat across 11 states for sage-grouse and 350 additional species. On June 8, 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a secretarial order opening a review of the plan as part of the agency's broader effort to remove perceived burdens on energy development. Although the agency did not provide a formal comment period, Audubon’s members made their voices heard: all 38 chapters in the region and nearly 24,000 individuals submitted comments in support of the Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plans.
On August 7, Secretary Zinke released his review. If implemented, the new recommendations would derail almost a decade of collaboration, research, and conservation efforts toward protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse and other important species like Burrowing Owls and Brewer’s Sparrows. The 52-page report orders the implementation of nine broad recommendations including:
- removing or modifying the boundaries of the most crucial and highly protected areas necessary to sage-grouse survival, called sagebrush focal areas;
- reviewing policy that prioritized habitat protection over energy and mineral leasing and development within the most important sage-grouse habitat; and
- possibly pivoting from a landscape-scale habitat conservation approach to one based on populations numbers by state. This change is a fundamental break from the existing approach and could lead to population collapse, because Greater Sage-Grouse go through drastic boom and bust population cycles.
Fortunately, the report suggests that the agency conduct a more formal engagement process before any changes to policy or the plans are made, working with states, ranchers, industry, conservation organizations, and others to evaluate the proposed changes and solutions. We will be calling on you to help hold the agency accountable to run a fair process and to make clear that a majority of Americans want to keep the original, strong conservation plans.
As Brian Rutledge notes in our press statement, “returning to old methodologies of preferring one use of public lands over all others will lead us all to failure. Audubon continues to stand with our partners, industry, ranchers, elected officials and communities across the West, who have worked together for years to protect America’s sagebrush landscape. We expect Interior will begin an inclusive and public process in which our voices will be heard."
Importantly, DOI’s report acknowledges that western states remain committed to the 2015 plans and do not want to see changes. Those state leaders, along with Audubon, know that this sage-grouse conservation effort has done more than protect an iconic bird—it has changed how conservation can occur in the West (see related article: “To Remember What Americans Can Achieve Working Together, Look to Utah’s Sagebrush Country”). And that is worth doing everything we can to defend it.