Science Does Not Support Plan Changes For This Majestic North-American Bird

(Tom Reichner/Shutterstock)

Matt Holloran Principal, Operational Conservation
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During the last century, it has been estimated that we have lost two-thirds of the Interior West’s greater sage-grouse population.

Now, a 2015 strategy that balanced conservation and energy development and protected important habitats on public lands is being changed in ways that ignore much of the best available science about the iconic bird’s needs.

That’s why I was among 21 leading sage-grouse scientists who recently urged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to retain a landscape-scale, science-based approach to managing and conserving greater sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats on federal public lands.

Last October, the Department of the Interior initiated a process to amend the current regulations that apply to sage-grouse habitats in 10 western states and directed the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to review all sage-grouse research published since 2015 to help inform management direction. 

The USGS report, released this past February, highlights no new science that would justify substantial changes to the BLM’s approach to managing sage-grouse from the plans the agency adopted in 2015. The science reviewed by the USGS does suggest, however, that modifications to the plans must be pursued with a narrow, science-based focus; unfortunately, we believe that the proposed amendments to the plans do not reflect such a targeted focus.

We are concerned that Interior’s decision to proceed, despite the USGS findings, could lead to an overall loss of sage-grouse habitat quantity and quality, which, in turn, may result in additional sage-grouse population declines.

Over half the sage-grouse’s habitat has been lost to wildfire, exotic weed infestation, oil and gas development and other human-related disturbances. The 2015 blueprint was developed with the goal of stabilizing populations by conserving key habitats that remain throughout the range of the species and provides a foundation from which we can work to enhance these remaining sagebrush habitats and maybe to restore some of the habitats we have lost. 

Sage-grouse are an awe-inspiring species that have adapted to thrive in one of the harshest climates in North America. They are also the canary in the coal mine for the overall health of the inland West’s sage-steppe ecosystem. Healthy sagebrush habitats are crucial for thriving big game, such as elk, deer and pronghorn — among 350 other species.

The health of these habitats also plays a crucial role in the economic stability of western communities. The existing strategy puts in place the protections necessary for the land managers, scientists and policymakers to determine and pursue effective and efficient ways of restoring these systems over the long term.

Many of the proposed changes promote management that could erode measures to conserve sage-grouse populations. While conservation and management occur at the local level, those decisions must be informed as to their cumulative impacts at spatial scales much larger than the footprint of the management decision itself.

Maintaining a range-wide perspective is important for the success of local efforts, and BLM engagement in sage-grouse conservation largely addresses this need. We are concerned that the changes proposed will undermine the agency’s ability to play this important role. 

Many of BLM’s recommendations have the potential to limit the ability of managers to effectively manage human disturbances, such as the effects of oil and gas drilling.

For example, amendments that de-prioritize the placement of human impacts outside of designated habitats limit the BLM’s options for managing at landscape scales. The agency should keep conservation measures in place that are collectively important for managing human disturbances.

Modifications to these and other measures in the plans should only be considered where analyses of regionally-specific sage-grouse data suggest that the changes will not negatively impact sage-grouse populations.

One of the most important aspects of the efforts to develop the current sage-grouse strategy was the cooperation among stakeholders, especially at the state level.

As we wrote to Sec. Zinke, “We do not believe this is the time to challenge the work done by countless stakeholders in support of sage-grouse conservation. Rather, we must continue to build on the momentum generated through development of the 2015 plans and allow the processes established in those plans to mature and evolve to realize the sustained conservation of sagebrush landscapes and the wildlife and people dependent thereon.”

Matt Holloran helped develop the 2015 Bureau of Land Management Sage-Grouse plans. He is principal at Operational Conservation and has studied sage-grouse predominantly in Wyoming for over 20 years.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.