Greater sage-grouse the focus of a new conservation planning effort

Photo: C. Robert Smith/Elk Meadow Images/National Geographic Stock

This week the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have initiated an effort to develop new conservation measures for greater sage-grouse, a sage brush ecosystem dependent species that has faced a dramatic decline, losing more than half its population since the late 1960s as a result of development across the western United States.  The greater sage-grouse is famous for its elaborate mating dances, but their significance goes much further – the decline of sage-grouse indicates a downward trend in the fragile sage brush ecosystems of the west, in which many species depend on the greater sage-grouse.  If the sage-grouse is in trouble, so are many other species.

Threats to the greater sage-grouse identified by the agencies include minerals development (oil and gas, coal, hard rock etc.), energy transmission, renewable energy development, fire, invasive species, grazing and off highway vehicle use.  Impacts from climate change only amplify these stressors.  Cumulatively, these threats have lead to a decline of greater sage-grouse on public lands at the same time that development and land use change has impacted populations that depend on private lands.  Between the BLM and Forest Service, 59% of the greater sage-grouse range occurs on public lands.

Since April 2010 the greater sage-grouse has been considered “warranted but precluded” from Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, meaning the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considers the species potentially in need of listing as endangered, but has higher priority species that need to be dealt with in the near term.  A recent settlement has put the FWS on track to make a final listing decision on the greater sage-grouse in 2015.

It is in response to this ramped up timeline that the BLM and FS have jumped into action.  The FWS pointed to deficient land use plans as a primary reason that greater sage-grouse do not have adequate regulatory mechanisms to stop the species decline.  The agencies hope that this process will put regulatory mechanisms in place that are strong enough to preclude ESA listing.

The new process will split the sage-grouse range into east and west regions and split even further into smaller regional environmental impact statements.  The planning process will look at 77 planning areas on BLM and Forest Service lands and seek to amend those plans that need enhanced greater sage-grouse conservation measures to protect the species.  It will also envelop planning process currently underway, including Wyoming’s great sage-grouse plan, and should incorporate emerging sources of information, like climate change impacts studied in the BLM’s Rapid Ecoregional Assessments, as they become available.

Scoping comments on the greater sage-grouse planning process are due February 7, 2012.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.