WASHINGTON, May 28, 2015 – The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released 14 final environmental impact statements today that will guide the agencies as they complete final land management plans that could help prevent an Endangered Species Act listing of the greater sage-grouse.
“The West is rapidly changing – with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” said Sally Jewell, who is head of the Interior Department and responsible for BLM. “Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West” the greater sage-grouse depends on.
The final management plans, due out in early June, will prescribe conservation efforts and industry restrictions across portions of federally owned land in 10 of the 11 Western states within the bird’s range. Federal lands, managed by BLM and USFS, make up 64 percent of the grouse’s 186 million acre territory, while 31 percent are private lands and 5 percent are owned by states.
According to BLM, the plans’ restrictions will be “layered” so the most valuable habitat is the most protected. Land with the greatest use restrictions will fall within Sagebrush Focal Areas – acreage with the highest breeding population densities, the greatest quality sagebrush habitat and a preponderance of federal ownership. Within the second tier of regulated acreage, termed Priority Habitat Management Areas, the plans will call for minimal or no surface disturbance. In General Habitat Management Areas, special management may be needed to sustain greater sage-grouse populations, but will not require strict land use restrictions.
The BLM stressed in its statement that the final land management plans will “honor all valid, existing rights, including those for oil and gas development, renewable energy, rights-of-way, locatable minerals, and other permitted projects” on both BLM and USFS lands. The plans will also be “grounded in the best available science,” the agency said, and will reflect years of public review.
Western governors will have 60 days to review the 14 environmental impact statements. Each plan will take a different management approach, but all 14 plans will be consistent on three objectives, the government said:
1. Minimizing new or additional surface disturbances by implementing caps on development; minimizing surface occupancy for energy development, and identifying buffer distances around the areas where male grouses gather for breeding before initiating projects.
2. Improving the condition of sagebrush habitat critical to the greater sage-grouse’s survival by managing for invasive species, such as juniper, and restoring damaged areas.
3. Reducing the threat of rangeland fire by restoring fire-impacted landscapes and preventing non-native, cheatgrass from overtaking healthy sagebrush landscapes.
Some conservation and sportsmen’s groups have come out in support of the proposed plans and expressed high hopes for the final editions. In a press conference this afternoon held by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh said the BLM’s announcement was “a big deal” that would help stakeholders “develop a system that conserves a species, but also does it in such a way that allows for other uses to move forward.”
Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he had “never seen (a conservation effort like the sage-grouse’s) at this level geographically or in terms of cooperation… The approaches that the BLM plans prescribe or are consistent with, we think, are the right thing to do for conserving sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, however, said the government’s plans were misguided. He said they were “only about controlling land, not saving the bird.” The federal government should cede authority on this issue to the states, he argued.
The Western Energy Alliance claimed federal regulation would eliminate between 9,710 and 18,250 oil and natural gas industry jobs and cost Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming between $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion in economic losses.
“Oil and natural gas companies have committed to several hundred conservation measures to protect the sage grouse and its sensitive habitat. With these land use plan amendments based on flawed science, the federal agencies are discouraging more effective state-based conservation, to the detriment of the sage grouse,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the group, said in a release.
While the plans will undoubtedly affect the energy industry, including renewable energy production, the extent of the effects are contested. A 2014 report commissioned by Western Values Project – an advocacy group for balanced energy production – found that 73 to 81 percent of areas with medium to high potential for energy development are outside the sage grouse's habitat.
Fosburgh said that figure was even higher – at 84 percent. “Oil and gas has been at the table developing these plans like all the other stakeholders,” he said.
Outside federal lands, public private conservation partnerships have restored millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat in the last five years. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Sage-Grouse Initiative, for instance, has restored more than 4.4 million acres of sagebrush habitat on more than 1,100 privately-owned Western ranches through conservation easements and voluntary pinion juniper removal programs since 2010.
The federal government’s management plans will likely be used in tandem with established state plans, given what BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials have said. Seven of the 11 states where greater sage-grouse are found have already completed comprehensive management strategies to protect the bird. Wyoming’s plan has been endorsed by FWS and Colorado’s plan is now accompanied by an executive order from the governor that established a “habitat exchange market” for additional sage-grouse habitat restoration and preservation in his state.
The governors of the states within the birds’ range released a summary report last month that argued against an Endangered Species Act listing, saying it would “diminish the amount of new voluntary conservation work undertaken (by the states) and have a significant, negative economic impact across the West.”
FWS estimates the grouse’s population has declined 30 percent in the last three decades and is now somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. The service will make a decision whether to list the greater sage-grouse by Sept. 30.
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