Planning to Fail at Sage-grouse Conservation

Photo by Erik Molvar

by Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project

The Trump administration has just launched a process to dismantle the greater sage-grouse land-use plan amendments that were put in place in 2015 to avert an Endangered Species listing for the bird. The emerging consensus is that this move undermines wildlife conservation, and represents yet another attack on science, facilitating a corporate takeover of western public lands.

Sage-grouse conservation is all about the habitat. Where land managers have failed to provide large, unspoiled expanses of sagebrush habitat, grouse are disappearing. The Obama-era plans achieved an incremental reduction in habitat losses by putting lines on a map that outline a subset of the best remaining sage-grouse habitats, and elevating by degrees the habitat protections that apply within these areas. Increased sage-grouse protections also benefit hundreds of other species of native plants and wildlife that inhabit the sagebrush sea. Thus, plans designed for a seldom-seen bird also provide a measure of protection for winter ranges used by elk, birthing habitats used by pronghorns, and migration corridors used by mule deer. Sportsmens’ advocates now recognize the key role that sage grouse protections play in safeguarding the game species they hunt, and are beginning to recognize the Zinke sage-grouse policy change as a direct attack on their interests.

Some gloss over the flaws of the original sage-grouse plans saying that they are science-based and collaborative. In reality, they incorporate back-room deals that too often kicked scientific knowledge to the curb in favor of political compromise. Efforts to appease skeptical western governors and county commissioners created loopholes that allow commercial and industrial uses that are fundamentally incompatible with sage-grouse conservation – and indeed are responsible for the bird’s disappearance in the first place – to continue on western public lands.

But giving western governors major concessions (including gerrymandering priority habitats in Wyoming, Nevada, California, Utah, and Idaho to exclude lands that industrial interests wanted to exploit) apparently wasn’t enough. Governors, county commissions, and lobby groups from across the West have filed lawsuits on behalf of their pet industries, hoping to eliminate the sage-grouse conservation measures that remained in the final plans. Anti-conservation states are seizing this new planning process as an opportunity to weaken habitat protections across 72 million acres of western public lands in the biggest sue-and-settle scheme America has ever seen.

The anti-conservation lawsuits foreshadow the likely outcome of the redrafted sage-grouse plans. Nevada, Utah, and Idaho each sued to get rid of Sagebrush Focal Areas. This designation offers a slightly lower level of habitat protection than the federal science team recommended for priority habitats (which get still lesser protections, replete with waivers and exemptions, under the current sage-grouse plans). But Focal Areas prevent mining claims, and prohibit future oil and gas leasing (except in Wyoming), and so these states are determined to guarantee that every last acre of prime sage-grouse habitat remains open to drilling, strip mining, and mountaintop removal. In Oregon, ranchers and Harney County each sued to block the designation of Research Natural Areas closed to livestock grazing to create reference areas showing how important habitats function under natural conditions. The State of Utah, and the oil industry, sued in part because federal buffers preventing industrial sites around leks (or breeding sites) – at 3.1 miles still much less than is needed to protect nesting habitats based on the science – were more restrictive than the scientifically invalid 0.6-mile buffers approved for Wyoming. Even in Wyoming, where the BLM adopted the state’s industry-friendly sage-grouse plan almost letter-for-letter, there are now rumblings of support for weakening the 7-inch grass height objective for livestock grazing, which the Wyoming state plan designates as a ‘de minimis’ impact on sage-grouse despite a Wyoming study demonstrating significant impacts of overgrazing on nest success.

Instead of strengthening the current plans, Secretary Zinke’s sage-grouse report signals specific intentions to renege on federal commitments to Sagebrush Focal Areas, Research Natural Areas, lek buffers, and livestock grazing objectives. The report also portends a renewed emphasis on discredited sage-grouse measures pushed by industry apologists, measures rejected during the original planning effort because scientists agreed that they have no conservation value and may even harm grouse populations. For example, sage-grouse captive breeding has never been seen as a viable strategy due to repeated failure of captive-raised grouse to survive in the wild. Killing more predators, always a favorite trope of the livestock industry, is a failed strategy because predator killing programs have only temporary effects at best, and can actually lead to increases in sage-grouse deaths.

The new planning process offers a second chance for the industries responsible for sage-grouse declines to pretend that today’s land uses can continue unchanged. Don’t be fooled by oil industry infomercials trumpeting new wildlife-friendly approaches. Science shows that drilling and other industrial facilities must be sited at least 2 miles away from sage-grouse breeding, nesting, and wintering habitats to prevent habitat abandonment, yet no oil and gas fields currently being proposed comply with this scientific directive. Oil and gas fields are the spectacular ecological trainwreck that causes catastrophic sage-grouse population losses, and these losses will resume with the next petroleum boom that pushes bulldozers and drilling rigs into the best remaining habitats. Don’t be distracted by “good for the herd” apologists hoping to gloss over livestock overgrazing so rampant that 45% of western public lands are failing to meet even the most basic rangeland health standards. This is the slow cancer killing sage-grouse populations across the West. “Business as usual” is what is driving this magnificent bird extinct, degrading the mountains, sagebrush basins, and free-flowing rivers that are the American public’s irreplaceable inheritance, and threatening to reverse a century of conservation achievements and progress.

Despite serious shortcomings, federal sage-grouse plans do include improvements in habitat protection over the virtual absence of conservation measures that existed before. While falling short of providing sage-grouse the science-based standards needed to prevent further declines, current plans provide a useful starting point upon which a strong and mandatory conservation framework can be built in the future.

The disappearance of sage-grouse from the West is the direct result of generations of politicians and bureaucrats cutting deals that sacrifice western lands and wildlife on the altar of corporate greed. Today, the Trump administration is attempting to reverse even the faltering advances of the Obama administration on sage-grouse conservation. If your goal is to drive local sage-grouse populations extinct so industrial exploitation can proceed without limits, Zinke’s approach makes perfect sense. If sage-grouse conservation remains a priority, then plans need to be strengthened to meet science-based thresholds. The sage-grouse planning process puts Secretary Zinke’s conservation credibility to the test. If failing to plan amounts to planning to fail, as the saying goes, then scrapping or weakening today’s sage-grouse plans amounts to a deliberate act of sabotage against the conservation of western lands and wildlife.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive Director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting western watersheds and wildlife. He has been heavily engaged in sage-grouse conservation issues for the past 15 years.


  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Excellent post. So much for the much-touted collaboration!

  2. MAD Avatar

    I am embarrassed that Ryan Zinke represented my state and continues to be a shill for special interests and cronyism. Not only is he a disaster as Secretary, but his level of corruption, as evidenced by the Puerto Rico electric fiasco, shows he’s just a good ol’ boy and could not care less about his actual job or ethical responsibilities.

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