Quit Your Grousing! Debunking Industry Objections to Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures

The greater sage-grouse is in trouble. Populations have been trending downward for years with many factors contributing to the species’ decline. Scientists have documented no fewer than 26 land uses and related effects that threaten sage-grouse, ranging from energy development and livestock grazing, to invasive species, wildfire and disease.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but that listing was precluded by other, higher priorities. But then just a year later, the agency committed in a court-approved settlement agreement to address sage-grouse for listing by 2015. After decades of population declines and habitat loss, this charismatic prairie dancer will finally receive a listing decision in two years.

Sage-grouse need large expanses of healthy sagebrush steppe to survive. Tatiana Gettelman/Flickr.

The certainty of the decision has prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal and state agencies to initiate an unprecedented planning effort to conserve sage-grouse across its range. This process has produced new compilations of science-based recommendations for conserving sage-grouse.

Among these is “A Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” written by a National Technical Team (NTT) of sage-grouse experts and land managers. The NTT report asserts that the BLM must adopt a “new paradigm” for managing sage-grouse, including much stricter land use standards on public lands to conserve grouse habitat.

Although they claim to support the species’ conservation, extractive industries are becoming nervous about what may be required to protect sage-grouse and their habitat. The NTT report, in particular, has drawn heavy fire from resource users that would prefer business as usual on public lands, including strong objections from the Northwest Mining Association (NMA), which published a critique of the NTT recommendations. A journalist invited Defenders of Wildlife to comment on the NWA report. If you are feeling wonky, you may be interested in our review, below.

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I have read the Northwest Mining Association’s (NMA) report, “BLM’s NTT Report: Is It the Best Available Science or a Tool to Support a Predetermined Outcome?” The NWA report is meaningless. The author misunderstands the relationship between the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) sensitive species policy and the National Technical Team’s (NTT) conservation recommendations for sage-grouse. While the BLM’s sensitive species policy requires the agency to conserve sensitive, candidate and listed species, it doesn’t include actual management prescriptions for doing so. The NTT report, on the other hand, presents recommendations by 23 sage-grouse experts and land managers (including 14 BLM officials) to conserve and recover sage-grouse. Fully implemented, the NTT report recommendations would help BLM meet its policy requirement to conserve sensitive species. In other words, the NTT report doesn’t replace the sensitive species policy, it is intended to guide agency management to achieve the goal of that policy.

The NMA report is also confusing, makes numerous baseless contentions and twists applicability of federal environmental law and regulation to reach strained conclusions about the NTT report. I have highlighted just a few of the questionable contentions from the report below.

“As such, [the NTT report] inappropriately discards an existing agency [sensitive species] policy without ever justifying the radical change advanced in the NTT [report], and is thus arbitrary and capricious” (p. i).

As noted above, the NTT report is intended to help BLM achieve the goal of its sensitive species policy. The NTT report recognized that BLM must commit to a “new paradigm” to manage sagebrush steppe and conserve sage-grouse (NTT report: 6). The report “provides the latest science and best biological judgment to assist in making management decisions” for sage-grouse (NTT report: 5).

“To that end, failing to include full implementation of Manual 6840 and the 2004 Guidance as an alternative in the Draft EIS documents is arbitrary and capricious, and the Draft EIS documents should not be published for public review until full analysis of this alternative is included” (p. ii).

See explanation of the BLM sensitive species policy above. The BLM will fully analyze all alternatives in sage-grouse planning documents in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Additionally, information just made public by the Federal government has revealed that BLM is presently incorporating elements of the NTT Report’s conservation measures into many of its 79 Resource Management Plans impacted by sage grouse through interim guidance prior to completing the EIS process” (news release).

This statement is further evidence of the author’s lack of awareness of the current sage-grouse planning process. The BLM announced as early as summer 2011 that it would update resource management plans with sage-grouse management prescriptions to support the species’ conservation and recovery on public lands. The agency also announced the policy in an instruction memorandum and a rangewide scoping notice in winter 2012. The planning process is depicted on a rangewide planning map that is regularly updated by the agency.

“…BLM chartered the Sage-Grouse National Technical Team who was charged with developing policy on how to manage sage-grouse conservation and protection under its jurisdiction, and against which all BLM activities would be measured” (p. 1).

The NTT report recommends management prescriptions to conserve and recover sage-grouse on public land. It is not a document by which “all BLM activities would be measured.” BLM Instruction Memorandum 2012-044—which was issued with the NTT report, and which the NMA report failed to reference—instructs BLM planners on how to use the NTT report (as well as the 2004 sage-grouse guidance) to update sage-grouse plans.

“…lack of consideration of the Policy for the Evaluation of Conservation Efforts (PECE)” (p. 1).

The PECE policy is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s guidance for measuring the effectiveness of conservation efforts to protect imperiled species. While the policy may be a helpful reference for BLM in developing sage-grouse conservation measures, it would be odd for the BLM to analyze the FWS policy itself in their planning process.

“To achieve the primary objective the NTT sets forth sub-objectives. Two of the four sub-objectives assert that 70% of the range within priority habitat needs to provide ‘adequate’ sagebrush habitat to meet sage-grouse needs, and that discrete anthropogenic disturbances in priority habitat be limited to less than 3% of the total sage-grouse habitat regardless of ownership (NTT at 7). These objectives are not supported by the literature” (p. 2).

These prescriptions were not only supported by science when the NTT report was written, new peer-reviewed research published this spring (Knick et al. 2013) confirms that sage-grouse persistence depends on large, undisturbed landscapes (<3% anthropogenic disturbance) mostly covered by sagebrush (average 79% sagebrush cover within 5 km of active leks).

The NMA report, citing others, criticizes Greater Sage-Grouse: Ecology and Conservation of a Landscape Species and Its Habitats (monograph).

The sage-grouse monograph was written by the top 38 sage-grouse and sagebrush experts in the world, edited by S. Knick and J. Connelly (experts on sagebrush and sage-grouse ecology), technically edited by C. Braun (sage-grouse expert), published by Studies in Avian Biology (Cooper Ornithological Society) and printed by the University of California Press. While NMA may not agree with information presented in the monograph, there is no questioning its validity.

“We were unable to obtain the following source. As such, any conclusions that are drawn in this report relating to this source are subject to change: M.J. Wisdom et.al., Factors Associated with Extirpation of Sage-grouse. 2011. Pages 451-472 in S.T. Knick and J.W. Connelly (editors). Greater Sage-grouse: Ecology and Conservation of a Landscape Species and Its Habitats. Studies in Avian Biology (Vol. 38). University of California press, Berkeley, California, USA” (p. 14-15, fn. 25).

Interesting that the NMA report would criticize the sage-grouse monograph without even having a copy to review. The monograph is available for purchase and the chapters are easily acquired from individual authors.

“The peer reviewers recognized the lack of discussion related to current state level sage-grouse plans, and other regulatory mechanisms that are protective in nature, as well as the complete disregard of Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) and PECE considerations” (p. 6).

See above explanation of the relationship between federal law and policy and the NTT report. FLPMA and the BLM sensitive species policy are management requirements; the NTT report presents scientific recommendations for achieving management goals. Also, most states are still in the process of developing sage-grouse conservation plans. Some of them are not very helpful to sage-grouse.

“In other words, all BLM needs to do is monitor and implement its own policy with regards to “special status species” under the Manual and provide data to USFWS in a useable format so that they can show reliable, quantifiable trends relating to the effectiveness of the Manual’s provisions in RMPs to the USFWS” (p. 8).

The problem with this assumption is that the Fish and Wildlife Service has already found that current BLM management done in accordance with its sensitive species policy and other law and regulation has failed to conserve sage-grouse. This is why the BLM commissioned the NTT report—to provide additional guidance for improving sage-grouse conservation on public lands.

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Mark Salvo is Director of Federal Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

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