Greater sage-grouse are in trouble and may be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act by September next year. This pending deadline has prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to initiate an unprecedented effort to update dozens of resource management plans with new conservation measures for the grouse and potentially preclude the need to list the species. But now this promising planning process could fall short of its goal, simply because the BLM has declined to follow the best available science on sage-grouse and its habitat.
The BLM (with the Forest Service as cooperating agency) initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in 2011. The first step was to convene a National Technical Team (NTT) comprised of 23 federal and state agency biologists and land managers (including 14 BLM officials) to review the extensive scientific record on sage-grouse and develop a report recommending conservation measures for the species. The team issued “A Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” six months later. BLM guidance instructed planners to analyze NTT report recommendations in at least one management alternative in draft conservation plans for sage-grouse.
The National Technical Team was unequivocal that the conservation measures in its report were derived from “interpretation of the best available scientific studies” using their “best professional judgment.” Moreover, more than 100 scientists described the NTT report to former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as a “comprehensive compilation of the scientific knowledge needed for conserving Sage-Grouse” that “offers the best scientifically supportable approach to reduce the need to list Sage-Grouse as a Threatened or Endangered species.”
Unfortunately, the BLM has progressively distanced itself from the NTT report since it was published. While BLM planners did as instructed, analyzing NTT report recommendations in each of the 15 draft plans developed under the planning strategy, they declined to adopt the NTT report as the preferred management alternative in any of them. Rather, proposed conservation measures in the draft plans are based on inferior science-—or no science at all—-and many would be inadequate to conserve and restore sage-grouse populations.
The BLM issued additional guidance last April (link) for how planners could resolve inadequate and inconsistent conservation measures related to certain land use in the draft plans. But this time agency leadership scarcely mentioned the NTT report and some of their recommendations were less protective than the National Technical Team advised. The April guidance also allowed exceptions to scientific recommendations for planning areas in Wyoming. Rather than close priority sage-grouse habitat to new oil and gas development (as the NTT report recommends), planners in Wyoming can adopt less protective measures proffered by the state. As Defenders has previously reported, key components of Wyoming’s “core area” conservation strategy lack scientific support and are unlikely to conserve sage-grouse long-term.
This Wyoming exception may be a prelude to finalization of the federal plans. This month federal and state officials will hold a series of internal meetings to review and compare proposed conservation measures for 14 draft plans (the BLM finalized the first of 15 plans in June). A memorandum organizing these meetings (link) makes no reference to the NTT report and further elevates the role of western states in the federal planning process. Some states have been pressing federal planners to adopt even less protective measures for sage-grouse than what the BLM had proposed in its draft plans.
The BLM now faces a conundrum. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider the best available science when determining whether a species warrants listing under the ESA. Because BLM has declined to adopt conservation measures in its own NTT report, their proposed management alternatives are not based on the best available science for conserving and recovering sage-grouse. If the BLM hopes to obviate the need to list the grouse under the ESA, then it must strengthen conservation measures in its draft plans to protect and restore the species. Yet, their national guidance to planners continues to backslide from the best available science represented in the NTT report.
Federal public lands are key to conserving sage-grouse and hundreds of other species that depend on sagebrush habitats. The National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy is an extraordinary opportunity to proactively plan for sage-grouse conservation and potentially avoid the need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. Federal planners can still salvage the federal planning process for sage-grouse. The NTT report recommends science-based prescriptions for managing the grouse and its habitat. The BLM should simply follow its own recommendations for conserving sage-grouse to produce final plans that are sufficient to protect and restore the species.