Tomorrow’s expected announcement by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that it will team up with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a new range-wide conservation strategy for the Greater Sage-Grouse is being received with optimism by two leading conservation organizations as a key step in providing long-term protection for the iconic western bird, which has suffered extensive losses in recent decades.
The agency will post the notice in the Federal Register tomorrow, December 9, opening a 60-day comment period on the proposal, which will affect BLM and Forest Service land management in portions of Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Montana, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon.
“This effort is essential if we are going to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse,” said Steve Holmer, Senior Policy Advisor with American Bird Conservancy. “We appreciate BLM’s leadership in tackling this challenge, and are encouraged by the participation of the U.S. Forest Service. We now have the nation’s two leading land management agencies at the table to address the complex land use issues that can help this species survive.”
The agencies have been motivated by an agreement between WildEarth Guardians and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to proceed with Endangered Species Act listing decisions for 252 Candidate Species, including the Greater Sage-Grouse, over the next five years. The agreement requires the Service to submit either a proposed rule or a “Not Warranted” for listing finding for sage-grouse by FY 2015.
“Oil and gas drilling, wind energy development, grazing, roads, utility corridors, and invasive species are all hazardous to sage-grouse,” said Mark Salvo, Director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians. “The agencies need to effectively address these threats to avoid listing the species.”
The agency’s announcement follows requests by conservation organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and directors of four western state fish and wildlife agencies for BLM to develop new and improved regulatory mechanisms to conserve and restore sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found current BLM resource management plans lacking when it declared the Greater Sage-Grouse a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing in March 2010.
Conservation organizations have previously described what a range-wide sage-grouse conservation strategy must include to be successful: the plan must involve all relevant federal agencies and cover all federal public lands; it must be based on the best available science on sage-grouse and sagebrush steppe; prescriptions for conserving grouse must be regulatory, not voluntary; and all affected local land use plans must be amended so that the same prescriptions are applied throughout the range of sage-grouse.
“We are encouraged by the approach the agencies are taking. Protecting habitat and addressing the impacts of oil drilling and wind development can give the grouse a chance for survival, and provide western communities a more sustainable roadmap for energy development moving forward,” said Holmer.
The Greater Sage-Grouse is both an indicator and umbrella species for the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem. First described by Lewis and Clark in 1805, Nineteenth Century travelers and settlers reported huge flocks of sage-grouse that darkened the sky as they lifted from valley floors. The historic range of the Greater Sage-Grouse closely conformed to the distribution of sagebrush-steppe in what became thirteen western states and three Canadian provinces. However, since 1900 sage-grouse populations have declined. Greater Sage-Grouse distribution has been reduced by almost half, while range-wide abundance has decreased between 67 and 99 percent from historic levels.