Archive | October, 2013

It’s Not Just About the Grouse

There is a lot of talk, in the media, on the Hill and among federal and state agencies, about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pending decision to protect the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Western states are anxious over the potential impact that listing the grouse as threatened or endangered would have on a multitude of land uses across the Sagebrush Sea. Industries question whether the species even warrants protection. And, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages more than half of remaining sage-grouse habitat, has embarked on an unprecedented conservation planning process in the hopes of forestalling a listing determination for the bird.

Unfortunately, much of the loud and rancorous debate over sage-grouse conservation misses the larger point. The greater sage-grouse is just the tip of the spear, the canary in the coal-mine – you pick the metaphor – its decline is an indicator of how we are managing to mismanage sagebrush grasslands. It’s not just greater-sage grouse that are in trouble; more than 350 other species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Likewise, many species that occur in other ecosystems managed by the BLM are also under consideration for protective listing, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, Sonoran desert tortoise, New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, Gunnison sage-grouse and a suite of endemic plants. The sheer volume of species in need of protection presents a logistical nightmare: if the BLM only focuses on conserving one species at a time, and only when species have declined to the point of needing Endangered Species Act protection, then the agency will be in constant crisis, and our ability to actually save imperiled species will be greatly reduced.

The case of the greater sage-grouse is a prime example of this predicament. Yet, in the current conservation planning process the BLM seems to be focusing only on how to better manage greater sage-grouse populations (and in our opinion, not doing so very successfully), without seeing the bigger picture that clearly points to a need to reevaluate the overall management of our public lands.

The BLM is a so-called “multiple-use” agency, and BLM lands are available for almost any use imaginable, from wildlife conservation to oil and gas development, renewable energy development, off-road vehicle use, mining, grazing, to Burning Man. Except where prohibited by Congress, the BLM has historically sought to accommodate all of these uses nearly everywhere on public lands.

Though the laws governing BLM and its multiple uses for public lands have only weak conservation standards, BLM is supposed to manage for “sustained yield,” and avoid “unnecessary and undue degradation” of natural resources, in addition to complying with environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. In other words, the BLM should be managing our public lands sustainably, so they can continue to provide benefits to the American people today, tomorrow and for future generations.

In order for this kind of sustainability to happen, the BLM must rethink its approach to management – from authorizing every use under the sun to sustainable landscape planning. Seeds of this (r)evolution are present. The agency recently released a policy statement regarding landscape-level planning to commit the agency to more forward-looking decisions based on better science, but implementation is largely up to field managers.

When the BLM completes its current round of plan revisions, amending over 80 of its land use plans at the cost of millions of dollars, will it have to turn around and do it all again to meet the conservation needs of the next imperiled species? Or will it use this wake-up call provided by the greater sage-grouse to do something bold and different?

Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

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Babbitt on Grouse: National Strategy Needed to Conserve Iconic Species

This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The University of California-Davis School of Law hosted an important seminar this month marking this milestone in the Act’s history. The agenda for “ESA at 40: Examining its Past and Exploring its Future” was loaded with timely presentations offered by an impressive slate of conservation leaders, practitioners and luminaries, including Defenders of Wildlife President, Jamie Rappaport Clark.

Jamie’s presentation was focused on the role of carefully crafted, scientifically viable and publicly transparent conservation agreements made to protect and restore candidate species and their habitat—that is, species that are candidates for protection, but are not yet listed under the Endangered Species Act. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt spoke on a similar topic in his keynote address, and used thecurrent sage-grouse planning process to highlight problems with conservation planning that lacks key ingredients for success.

The former Secretary reminded attendees that “perhaps the most important lesson learned from the last forty years is that most species have become endangered through loss of habitat.” It’s a simple truism, but one that is often forgotten amid the cacophony of opposition to species protection.

It follows then, that a successful conservation strategy must, first and foremost, adopt enforceable, minimum standards to protect habitat. Conservation planning, cannot, as Mr. Babbitt noted, “be reduced to a process of political bargaining in search for the lowest common denominator of agreement.”

However, it seems that’s where the federal National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy may be headed…

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Greater Sage-Grouse Current Distribution and BLM Lands

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for half of remaining sage-grouse habitat, and the Forest Service manages an additional 10 percent. These agencies are trying to avoid a listing for sage-grouse by initiating a massive planning process to update more than 100 land use and management plans with new measures to conserve the species. Unfortunately, and although more attention to conservation is usually a good thing, the sage-grouse plans released to date leave much to be desired.

As Mr. Babbitt explained, the BLM, “eager to avoid controversy,” has pursued a strategy “notable mainly for its lack of prescriptions to conserve sage-grouse” and “delegated planning to agency managers across the West without delineating minimum standards that must be included if plans are to be successful.” In other words, the new plans must do more to protect sage-grouse from habitat loss and degradation.

Mr. Babbitt summarized the problem as only the former Secretary can: “it is little short of fantasy to imagine that local and state BLM offices, without clear guidance from Washington, and under pressure from drillers, miners, ranchers and other resource users, can propose management prescriptions that will meet the legal test of the ESA.”

Fortunately, the former Secretary also explained what an improved sage-grouse planning process should look like. He recommended that federal agencies need to roll up individual sage-grouse plans into a single, range-wide conservation strategy. This would help eliminate the inconsistencies and inadequacies in individual plans. And he urged the Obama administration to specially protect the most essential habitat for sage-grouse. A system of sagebrush reserves would benefit sage-grouse and hundreds of other species that use sagebrush habitat.

As Mr. Babbitt concluded, “the sage-grouse and the Sagebrush Sea of the inland West are an enduring part of our natural heritage and must be preserved.” We agree, and the current sage-grouse planning process, if done correctly, is an unprecedented opportunity to advance this goal.

Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments


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.

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