The National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy is a commendable effort to improve management of more than 60 million acres of the Sagebrush Sea, a little known, but vitally important landscape to fish and wildlife, recreation, western communities and sustainable economic development. In September 2015, the federal government released Records of Decision for 14 of 15 final sage-grouse plans prepared under the Planning Strategy. While no conservation strategy is perfect, given the level of management discretion and deference in the final plans, interpretation and implementation of the plans will be particularly important to their success or failure to conserve and recover sage-grouse and their habitat.
Defenders of Wildlife closely monitored development of key sage-grouse conservation measures throughout the four-year planning process. A number of issues remain unresolved in the Records of Decision (ROD) and approved resource management plan amendments (ARMPA). In this series of blog posts, Defenders will respectfully offer recommendations to address certain deficiencies in the final plans to improve conservation of sage-grouse and hundreds of other species that depend on sagebrush steppe. Although the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service were both involved in the Planning Strategy, our analyses and recommendations will focus on the BLM, which manages the majority of sage-grouse habitat on federal lands.
MANAGEMENT ISSUE: High quality, accessible winter habitat is essential to the sage-grouse’s life cycle.
Sage-grouse winter habitat must provide tall, healthy sagebrush for food and cover to support the birds throughout the season (Braun et al. 2005; Connelly et al. 2011a, citing others). Wintering areas are often on windswept ridges, south-facing slopes or in protected draws where sagebrush is not completely covered in snow (Braun et al. 2005; final Wyoming: 98-99). These landscape features may be geographically limited in some areas (e.g., Beck 1977). Moreover, big sagebrush communities typically used for winter habitat are becoming increasingly rare in the West (Welch 2005).
Sage-grouse typically show high fidelity to winter habitat areas, and a single wintering area may support several different breeding populations (i.e., populations of males and females that use different breeding and nesting habitats in spring) (draft Oregon: 8-39; SGNTT 2011: 51). Moynahan et al. (2007) also observed that the quality of winter habitat appears to influence the abundance and condition of female sage-grouse and their nesting effort and clutch sizes in spring. Healthier females are more likely to have larger clutches and re-nest in case of nest failure (i.e., from predation). Given the importance of winter habitat, the loss or fragmentation of these areas can have a disproportionate impact on sage-grouse population size locally and regionally (Caudill et al. 2013; draft Oregon: 8-39).
MANAGEMENT PRESCRIPTION: The first step to conserving important habitat areas is to identify them. In some cases, land and wildlife managers know where winter habitat exists based on observed use by sage-grouse. Where use is not yet known, surveys of vegetation type, geography and topography can help generally identify winter habitat. BLM’s final plan for Utah noted that such “broad maps are more likely to include all seasonal habitat areas important for each population and can be refined as management agencies gain more information” and that the broadly delineated maps used in that plan may “include known use areas, areas of potential habitat, as well as areas of non-habitat” (final Utah: Append. K, K-3). Notably, a federal court has held that the failure to map sage-grouse winter habitat could be grounds for remanding a land use plan back to the responsible federal agency to address the omission (WWP v. Salazar, 4:08-CV-516BLW, Slip Op. at 3).
PROPOSED FINAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLANS/SUB-REGIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS: Following scoping for the planning process in 2012, the BLM produced 14 draft conservation plans covering sage-grouse range in 2013-2014 (a fifteenth plan for the Lander Field Office in Wyoming was further along in the process and was finalized in 2014). The BLM then released 14 proposed final plans in April 2015, incorporating public comments on the draft plans and recommending management prescriptions to be adopted in the final plans.
Only five proposed final sage-grouse plans identified sage-grouse winter habitat within their planning areas (Map 1). The proposed final plan for Oregon stated that designated priority habitat contains 99 percent of known sage-grouse wintering areas (proposed final Oregon; 3-7; see also 3-6, Oregon core areas contain 99 percent of 1,695 known winter locations), but didn’t include a map of winter habitat (see 2-56, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife updating sage-grouse habitat maps). The proposed final plan for the Wind River/Bighorn Basin District in Wyoming identified winter habitat in only one of two resource areas (Worland) in the planning area, though the other resource area (Cody) certainly contains sage-grouse winter habitat. The other seven proposed final plans did not identify sage-grouse winter habitat at all.
RECORDS OF DECISION/APPROVED RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLAN AMENDMENTS: The BLM released final versions of 14 sage-grouse plans in September 2015. Only two final plans included maps of sage-grouse winter habitat (Map 2). In some cases, BLM sage-grouse plans mapped and prescribed greater protection for winter range for species other than sage-grouse. For example, the final plan for the Lander Field Office included maps of winter and “crucial” winter range for bighorn sheep, elk, moose, mule deer and pronghorn, but not sage-grouse.
Five final plans apparently rejected maps of sage-grouse winter habitat included in previous draft and proposed final versions:
- Three final plans—HiLine, Northwest Colorado and South Dakota—dropped winter habitat maps included in proposed final versions (proposed final HiLine: 439, Map 3.22; proposed final South Dakota: Map 2-9). In fact, the map in the proposed final plan for Northwest Colorado depicted both sage-grouse winter range and “severe winter range,” which might have been important for current and future decision-making concerning the species (proposed final NW Colorado: Append. A, A-32, Fig. 3-4).
- The final Wyoming plan, while describing both the characteristics and importance of conserving winter habitat (final Wyoming: 107) .
- Both the proposed final and final plans for Idaho/Southwest Montana failed to incorporate a map of sage-grouse winter range included in the draft plan (draft Idaho/SW Montana: Append. I, vol 3, I-32) nor did they include a map of winter habitat prepared by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Both BLM RODs for the sage-grouse planning process promised to incorporate new maps of sage-grouse winter habitat in individual plans “through subsequent plan maintenance, revision, or amendment, as appropriate” and that “[p]riority should be given to ensuring that wintering habitat is identified and captured in all changes in habitat maps subsequent to [the Records of Decision]” (RM ROD: 1-40; GB ROD 1-42). This is helpful direction for long-term conservation of sage-grouse. However, in the interim, the BLM should consider adopting existing maps (even draft maps that broadly identify winter habitat) and take a precautionary approach to managing all potential wintering areas until they are more definitively delineated in planning documents.
Mark Salvo is Senior Director for Landscape Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife.
Lauren McCain is a Federal Lands Policy Analyst for the organization.