What’s really going on with the Trump attack on federal sage grouse plans

When the Bureau of Land Management released its final analysis on sage grouse plan changes in early December, a flurry of media stories trumpeted the reduction of protected sage-grouse habitat from 10 million to 1.8 million acres of federal land. That sounds like a big bad deal, but the reality is even worse. The plan amendments would undercut sage-grouse protections across 83 million acres of sage-grouse habitat in the west by stripping away mandatory and measurable protections, and giving states and industries that sued to dismantle the 2015 Obama-era sage-grouse plans everything they asked for in their lawsuits.

The media confusion over the problems with the Trump sage grouse plans arises from a misunderstanding of how the plan amendments deal with Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs), the category of sage-grouse habitats that got the strongest level of protection under the Obama-era plans. The original plans designated 11.3 million acres as SFA and the new amendments retain just 3 million acres of SFA. But the BLM had already gutted most of the protections afforded to SFA by abandoning its plan to withdraw these areas from fluid mineral leasing and hard-rock claims, so the effect of this part of the plan revision on the ground is almost negligible. Having Sagebrush Focal Areas in name only was misleading to begin with.

The 2015 sage grouse plans designated 83 million acres as grouse habitats with varying levels of protection (including SFA, Priority Habitat Management Areas, and General Habitat Areas). The plans prioritized energy and mineral leasing and development outside those designated habitats, and the Trump amendments would strip this prioritization away – a major downgrade in states like Wyoming and Utah where oil and gas drilling pressure is the greatest and where millions of acres of sage-grouse habitats have already been put on the agency auction block. (Full disclosure: Western Watersheds Project, for which I work, is suing to block these leases in grouse habitats).

Across most of the new BLM plans, the previously required “mitigation” actions to achieve a “net conservation gain” for sage grouse are being downgraded to voluntary measures, with a goal of “no net loss” of sage-grouse habitat. That means that the current status of many populations and habitats is now the ceiling rather the floor in terms of what we can expect to see across the West. By reversing “net conservation gain” to “No net loss,” the agency is basically conceding that the depressed and nearly extirpated sage-grouse is an acceptable goal to work toward. This is a bleak vision of land management and goes against the hope of recovery for this charismatic creature.

The Trump amendments also lift the limits on livestock grazing that the Obama-era plans (and the best available science) said public lands needs to achieve to conserve grouse. In most of the 2015 plans, the BLM incorporated an objective to retain 7 inches of grass height to provide hiding cover for nesting and brood-rearing sage hens. Now that objective is deleted, with vague references to “adequate cover,” a completely subjective measure that discounts the relatively certain grass height these birds needs. This is just one example of the Trump administration favoring ranchers at the expense of the bird. In Oregon, the plan amendment withdraws the 2015 plan to exclude grazing from 22,000 acres of Research Natural Areas in order to provide reference conditions critical for comparing grazed and ungrazed sage grouse habitats in order to measure the magnitude of livestock impacts. These 22,000 acres were only one-fifth of one percent (0.002) of all the sage-grouse habitat leased for livestock grazing on public lands in Oregon, and yet even these tiny token reference areas for science could not stand.

In Nevada, 9.4 million acres deemed Priority Areas for Conservation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got the axe under the Obama administration’s plan, creating a fragmented patchwork of Priority Habitats that no objective scientist would claim is adequate to protect a species absolutely dependent on vast tracts of unspoiled sagebrush. The Trump plan makes it worse by downgrading a further 43,000 acres of Priority Habitats in Nevada and eliminating outright more than 1 million acres of other designated habitat areas. Utah faces an equally troubling prospect, because local agriculture has been busy as bees for generations, wiping out prime sage-grouse habitat for irrigated cropland and leaving behind an isolated and fragmented archipelago of remaining sage grouse habitats. The already-paltry habitat designations of 2015 are now compounded by the elimination of 35,600 acres of priority habitat and the complete deletion of all “General Habitats,” totaling 448,600 acres.

This new planning efforts makes it obvious that the goal is to return to the bad old days when the West was a playground for commercial exploitation, sage-grouse were headed for extinction, and more than 350 other species of plants and animals in the sagebrush sea were declining amid degraded habitats and an influx of noxious weeds. Americans deserve better than the waste of the West that is accelerating under the Trump administration. Strengthening the sage-grouse plans by implementing scientifically defensible conservation measures, instead of undermining wildlife protections, would be a good start in steering western public lands toward the sound stewardship that is so richly deserved and so long overdue.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the West.






  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Terrible. It was promised that in order to avoid a threatened or endangered listing for the grouse, that industry agreed to ‘never before seen’ cooperation to protect the bird’s habitat or words to that effect? Never seen is right. ;(

    The sad part is that it was predictable that avoiding an endangered listing was the only goal.


  2. Yvette Avatar

    Good work, Florida Fish and Game. I don’t know why people have the desire to inflict such torture and suffering, but at least this group is facing consequences. I hope they get maximum prison sentences for their crimes.

    The Marion County Jail log indicates that bail for Dustin Reddish is set at total of $97,100 on eight charges. Haley Reddish is being held on seven counts, with total bail at $95,100. William Wood faces nine charges, with his bail set at $107.100.


    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Wow. Just awful. This is the kind of stuff nobody wants to acknowledge, and it allows it to continue.

      But you’ve got to give Florida props for protecting their beautiful environment, I think. They know how valuable it is. The sportsfishing community displays honor too.

  3. Yvette Avatar

    Ralph, I posted to the wrong article. I needed this to be on the news blog. I’m sorry.

  4. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    There is a kind of hierarchical evil at work within the BLM that most people do not seem to understand. BLM is a kind of paper work prison concerned about process, and public relations while providing for resource users that make money off the land. It’s guiding principle is management by hypocrisy, not ecology. I am posting a link to a L.A. Times article below. The article discusses the reality of working for the BLM as someone that really cared about the land.

    http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/media-archive/A conservationists suicide


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan