Sage grouse Samba: Habitat protection takes two steps forward, one step back

BLM habitat management area, of which there is 60,000 acres in Garfield County, will receive second look in 2022

A greater sage grouse puffs out its chest feathers in characteristic fashion. The sage grouse is an indicator species for the overall health of the “sage brush sea” in the West.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy photo

The efforts to protect the greater sage grouse habitat in the West can, at times, resemble the birds’ famous mating dance, taking two steps forward and one step back.

In recent months, a two-steps forward effort was made by the Bureau of Land Management as the agency announced in November that it will consider updating the latest management plans for sage-brush habitat in order to protect the long-term health of sage-grouse populations.

“Safeguarding sage-brush habitat is considered essential to the long-term health of sage-grouse populations as well as more than 350 other species, which continue to experience pressure from development and a variety of factors including invasive grasses, wildfire and drought exacerbated by climate change,” the BLM wrote in a statement.

Greater sage-grouse populations have declined by 80% since 1965, and by 40% since 2002. Recent monitoring from the Bureau of Land Management indicates that wildfire, cheatgrass invasion and land development destroyed 1.9 million acres of the bird’s priority habitat between 2012 and 2018.

Garfield County has more than 24,000 acres of BLM land which the agency has adopted as priority habitat for the greater sage grouse, meaning the areas “have been identified as having the highest conservation value to maintaining sustainable (sage-grouse) populations; they include breeding, late brood-rearing, and winter concentration areas,” according to the BLM.

BLM lands in Garfield County contain more than 24,000 acres of priority habitat and more than 35,000 acres of general habitat for a total of 60,900 acres of sage grouse habitat management area.
Courtesy image

Garfield County also contains more than 35,000 acres of BLM lands considered to be general habitat management areas for the greater sage grouse, creating a total of 60,900 acres of sage grouse habitat management area in Garfield County.

“The sage grouse is really an indicator species for the health of the sage-brush ecosystem, and the sage-brush ecosystem supports 300-plus other species of wildlife,” said said Joe Bushyhead, who is an endangered species advocate with the non-profit wildlife advocacy group WildEarth Guardians. “So protecting the sage grouse means protecting its ecosystem, and that also means protecting habitat for species like pronghorn, mule deer, Lahontan cutthroat trout, and all these other species that inhabit the sage-brush ecosystem of the Intermountain West.”

Sage advice

The establishment of the sage-grouse habitat management areas was itself a two-steps forward measure for advocates as, in 2015, it triggered scores of land-use plan amendments aimed at protecting the West’s “sage brush sea” on which the sage grouse depends.

But an ensuing one-step back measure was quick to follow.

“The 2015 plans established a solid foundation, but actions during the previous administration kept those plans from being put into action,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning.

Bushyhead said the 2015 plan amendments “failed to follow the best science on limitations of development and habitat perimeters for sage grouse.”

Stone-Manning said the BLM’s next review will examine new scientific information, including the effects of stressors like climate change, to assess what management actions may best support sage-brush habitat conservation and restoration on public lands to benefit the sage grouse.

“As we move to build upon the earlier plans, we are asking whether there are other steps we should take given new science to improve outcomes for sage grouse and also for people in communities across the West who rely on a healthy sage-brush steppe,” Stone-Manning said. “We remain dedicated to working closely with states, local governments, Tribes and other partners who have worked in a collaborative and bipartisan fashion for more than a decade toward sustainable and balanced management of sagebrush habitat.”

Sage grouse gather on a BLM habitat area in Utah.
Bureau of Land Management/Courtesy photo

Sage grouse defenders say the BLM’s effort to revisit the sage grouse plans will be an important step forward, but just last week with the passage of the omnibus government funding bill, Bushyhead said he was disappointed to see Congress take another step back with regards to sage grouse protections. The spending bill includes a rider preventing any funding from being used to protect the sage grouse.

“The sage-grouse rider represents the worst sort of politics,” Bushyhead said. “The science couldn’t be more clear: greater sage grouse need protection now more than ever. Congress’ decision to add this rider in the face of continued sage grouse population declines, and in the midst of an ongoing extinction crisis across the West, is unconscionable.”

Nevertheless, Bushyhead said, sage grouse defenders are hopeful that the BLM’s effort to revisit the 2015 plans could result in draft plan amendments by the end of this year.

“That’s a big deal,” Bushyhead said. “These land use plan amendments will affect millions of acres of federal land, and we hope BLM can right many of the wrongs from the 2015 plans.”

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