Archive | Public Lands

National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy: Livestock Grazing and Invasive Species

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 landscape that is vitally important to fish and wildlife, recreation, western communities and sustainable economic development. The federal government released Records of Decision for 14 of 15 final sage-grouse plans prepared under the Planning Strategy in September 2015. 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 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: the BLM’s Records of Decision and approved resource management plan amendments fail to provide direction for managing livestock grazing to avoid contributing to the spread of invasive annual grasses (primarily cheatgrass) in sage-grouse habitat.


   1. Manage livestock grazing to help restore, maintain and improve habitat resiliency against cheatgrass incursion in sage-grouse habitat.

    2. Use livestock to control cheatgrass only in limited circumstances.

   3. Adopt a universal desired habitat condition of less than 5 percent cheatgrass cover within 4 miles of all occupied or pending sage grouse leks.


Cheatgrass dominating sagebrush steppe in Idaho.

THREAT: Annual grasses, especially cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), are a significant threat to sage-grouse and their habitat (US FWS 2010; Miller et al. 2011; Connelly et al. 2011). The BLM has expressed concern about the spread of cheatgrass on sagebrush steppe for nearly two decades (e.g., Pellant 1996). Cheatgrass is now the dominant species on 100 million acres (158,000 square miles) in the Intermountain West (Rosentreter 1994: 170, citing Mack 1981) and is a primary driver of huge, unnatural fires in sagebrush steppe (Miller et al. 2011). The conversion of sagebrush habitat to exotic annual grasslands is by one account “massive” (Allen 2003). Scientists have reported a strong correlation between livestock grazing and cheatgrass incursion (Reisner et al. 2013; Reisner et al. 2015).

EFFECT:  Reisner et al. (2013) found that, even after controlling for other factors that may contribute to the spread of cheatgrass, there is a strong correlation between grazing effects and cheatgrass incursion. Cattle grazing increases cheatgrass dominance in sagebrush steppe by decreasing bunchgrass abundance, altering and limiting bunchgrass composition, increasing gaps between perennial plants, and trampling biological soil crusts (Reisner et al. 2013; Knick et al. 2003).

A massive burn in Idaho driven by the occurrence cheatgrass in sagebrush steppe.

A massive burn in Idaho driven by the occurrence cheatgrass in sagebrush steppe.

Livestock grazing is also ineffective for controlling cheatgrass, even at the highest grazing intensities (Reisner et al 2013; Hempy-Mayer and Pyke 2008). As the BLM stated in the draft Idaho/southwestern Montana sage-grouse plan (draft Idaho/SW Montana: 3-64 – 3-65), “[i]ntensive livestock grazing is often suggested for controlling cheatgrass competition. Although targeted grazing may have some applications for fuels management, it is not effective in reducing cheatgrass competition…. During the short time when cheatgrass is highly palatable in the spring, a sufficient number of livestock cannot be concentrated on a small enough area to reduce the cheatgrass seed significantly or reduce cheatgrass seed lying on the soil surface. In addition, this type of grazing can be detrimental to remaining perennial grasses, opening the site up for further cheatgrass expansion in the future.”

DRAFT RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLANS/SUB-REGIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS: All of the draft plans recognized that invasive plants, including cheatgrass, are an important management issue in sagebrush steppe. Most of them specifically identified cheatgrass as a threat to wildlife, including sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species such as pronghorn (draft Bighorn Basin: 3-96) and sage thrasher (draft Bighorn Basin 3-109). Many of the draft plans also acknowledged that livestock grazing and “excessive grazing” can spread invasive plants (e.g., draft Buffalo: 306; draft Bighorn Basin: 4-146; draft Billings-Pompey’s Pillar: 3-88; draft Miles City: 3-77; draft South Dakota: 361; draft Oregon: 4-89). The draft Nevada/northeastern California plan observed that “[l]ivestock grazing is one of the vectors to introduce and or increase the spread of invasive weeds” and that “[m]ultiple factors can influence an area’s susceptibility to cheatgrass invasion, including livestock grazing, perennial grass cover and biological soil crusts”(draft Nevada: ch. 4, 54, citing Reisner et al. 2013).

MANAGEMENT DIRECTION: The Secretary of the Interior issued Order 3336, “Rangeland Fire Prevention, Management and Restoration,” which included direction to “reduce the likelihood, size, and severity of rangeland fires by addressing the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive, non-native species” (SO 3336: 2).

MANAGEMENT PRESCRIPTIONS: Reisner et al (2013), cited in every one of the BLM planning documents, provided clear, science-based prescriptions for managing grazing to avoid contributing the spread of cheatgrass:

“If the goal is to conserve and restore resistance of [big sagebrush] systems, managers should consider maintaining or restoring:

(i) high bunchgrass cover and structure characterized by spatially dispersed bunchgrasses and small gaps between them;
(ii) a diverse assemblage of bunchgrass species to maximize competitive interactions with B. tectorum in time and space; and
(iii) biological soil crusts to limit B. tectorum establishment. Passive restoration by reducing cumulative cattle grazing may be one of the most effective means of achieving these three goals” (Reisner et al. 2013: 1).

Additional research found that cheatgrass and clasping pepperweed (Lepidium perfoliatum, a non-native mustard) out-compete native grasses where vegetative communities are stressed by higher surface temperatures, limited moisture and grazing pressure (i.e., south facing slopes) (Reisner et al. 2015). The U.S. Geological Survey recommends adjusting and even suspending livestock grazing as part of a passive restoration program to maintain and reestablish resilient sagebrush steppe (Pyke et al. 2015).

PROPOSED FINAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLANS/SUB-REGIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS: None of the proposed final sage-grouse plans prescribed grazing management to avoid contributing to cheatgrass invasion, although the Nevada/northeastern California plan included an action to monitor and manage grazing practices to “prevent the establishment of invasive species” (Nevada: 2-30, Action VEG-ISM 1).

While lacking in measures to prevent the spread of cheatgrass, all but two of the proposed plans claim that grazing can reduce fire fuels (i.e., cheatgrass) in sagebrush steppe. Federal land managers could misinterpret such general statements as direction for using livestock as a “tool” for controlling cheatgrass, contrary to evidence. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is preparing to issue a Record of Decision on the Bi-state Distinct Population Segment Forest Plan Amendment/Final Environmental Impact Statement that includes model language for using livestock as a tool to reduce fire risk from cheatgrass:

Grazing may be used to target removal of cheatgrass or other vegetation hindering [sage-grouse conservation] objectives where monocultures occur to reduce risk of fire and achieve or move toward desired habitat conditions. Sheep, goats, or cattle may be used as long as the animals are intensely managed and removed when incidental utilization of desirable species reaches 25%.

A cattle trail serves as a vector for cheatgrass to invade burned sagebrush habitat in Idaho.

A cattle trail serves as a vector for cheatgrass to invade burned sagebrush habitat in Idaho.

PROTEST RESOLUTION: The BLM issued reports for each responding to administrative protests submitted on the proposed final sage-grouse plans. The agency commonly responded “[t]he BLM has adequately analyzed and disclosed the effects of livestock grazing on native plant communities and invasive species, including cheatgrass” (e.g., Oregon protest resolution: 55; Nevada/NE California protest resolution: 131; Idaho/SW Montana protest resolution: 82). Calls to limit grazing to certain seasons and limit the loss of native perennials were met with promises to perform “site-specific analysis” during implementation (e.g., Northwest Colorado protest resolution: 24-25).

RECORDS OF DECISION: the BLM’s Records of Decision for both the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain regions defer to the underlying approved resource management plan amendments to implement grazing prescriptions in sage-grouse habitat. “Improper livestock grazing” is undefined yet identified as a negative impact on landscape conditions (RM ROD: 1-8; GB ROD: 1-7) and as a hindrance to achieving the habitat objective of maintaining or restoring healthy native perennial grasses (RM ROD: 1-26; GB ROD: 1-24–1-25).

APPROVED RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLAN AMENDMENTS: While continuing to acknowledge the threat of cheatgrass to sage-grouse, none of the final plans specifically prescribe grazing management to avoid contributing to the spread of cheatgrass in grouse habitat. In fact, the plans defer again to existing rangeland health standards and guidelines for their particular region (e.g., Utah ARMPA: 1-14). These outdated and vague guidelines do not include direction for controlling grazing to avoid the spread of cheatgrass (indeed, if they did, they might have helped to prevent grazing from spreading the invader across sage-grouse range over the last 15 years). All of the final plans would accept a form of “targeted grazing” as a method to contain cheatgrass, a management method that has questionable effects (see above) (some plans do require the BLM to consult with ecologists to strategize use before implementation (e.g., Northwest Colorado ARMPA: 2-9, MD FIRE-12)).

Interestingly, two of the approved management plans adopted a quantitative habitat objective for cheatgrass cover in essential sage-grouse habitat. The Oregon ARMPA includes a habitat objective of less than 5 percent cheatgrass cover within 4 miles of all occupied or pending sage-grouse leks (Oregon ARMPA: 2-10, Obj Veg 3). The Nevada and Northeastern California ARMPA adopted a desired condition of less than 5 percent cheatgrass cover in nesting habitat from April 1 to June 30 (Nevada/NE California ARMPA: 2-4, Table 2-2). None of the other approved plans have a quantitative habitat objective or desired condition for cheatgrass cover.

Mark Salvo is Senior Director for Landscape Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife.

Jamison Shabanowitz is a Renewable Energy and Wildlife Fellow at Defenders of Wildlife.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Sage-Grouse Need Sagebrush Reserves

Sage-grouse Need Sagebrush Reserves

The vast Sagebrush Sea in the Intermountain West is one of the least protected ecosystems in the United States. Less than five percent of the landscape receives some level of federal protection as wilderness areas, national parks, national wildlife refuges, national conservation areas, national monuments and similar designations. The lack of protection has contributed to an increasing number of imperiled species in the Sagebrush Sea, most notably the greater sage-grouse. To prevent sage-grouse and other imperiled species from further decline, more sagebrush reserves should be protected from development and other damaging uses.

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the caretaker for half of remaining sage-grouse habitat. Public lands managed by BLM are governed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 (43 U.S.C. § 1701-1787). The law provides few substantive requirements for conservation, though one of them is the identification and designation of “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACEC) as part of the agency’s resource management planning process. The implementing regulation defines ACECs:

The term “areas of critical environmental concern” means areas within the public lands where special management attention is required (when such areas are developed or used or where no development is required) to protect and prevent irreparable damage to important historic, cultural, or scenic values, fish and wildlife resources or other natural systems or processes, or to protect life and safety from natural hazards. 43 C.F.R. § 1601.0-5(a).

During the resource management planning process, the agency is to “give priority to the designation and protection of areas of critical environmental concern.” 43 C.F.R. § 1601.0-5(a).

The BLM initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in 2011 to update dozens of resource management plans with new measures to conserve sage-grouse on approximately 50 million acres of BLM land. Unfortunately, the draft plans released in 2013-2014 were wholly inadequate to conserve the species  and must be improved to meet the purpose of the planning strategy. However, even if the agency adopts science-based management prescriptions to reduce harm to sage-grouse from development and other effects, we still need strongholds on the landscape that are proactively managed for sage-grouse conservation.

This is why designating ACECs in the sage-grouse planning process is so important. The BLM could create a system of sagebrush reserves with a mission of maintaining and restoring sagebrush habitat and all the species that depend on it, including more than 350 species of conservation concern. ACEC designation can also buy time to adopt and implement other, more durable forms of conservation protections.

A potential ACEC may only be designated if it meets “relevance” and “importance” criteria outlined in BLM regulations. Almost all of the draft plans determined that potential new sage-grouse ACECs met relevance and importance criteria for designation. The draft plan for Oregon, typical of the others, analyzed more than 4 million acres for protection as ACECs, finding that they contained relevant resources, including sage-grouse leks, seasonal habitats, and high quality sagebrush steppe, which are important because sage-grouse are a candidate species for listing and a high priority to the agency. The Northwest Colorado plan analyzed 926,800 acres for potential designation as ACECs and included a series of maps depicting the overlap between the potential ACECs and other important wildlife habitats in the state, including elk and mule deer winter concentration areas, streams with threatened or endangered fish, and suitable habitat for federally protected plants.

Unfortunately, and although the BLM presents a persuasive case for protecting new sagebrush reserves, the draft plans collectively would only designate a few small areas as new ACECs to conserve sage-grouse. The BLM appears to believe that, while new reserves could benefit the species, the proposed management schemes in the selected management alternatives should be sufficient to “protect the relevant and important values… independent of an ACEC designation” (Oregon 4-222).

The process used to analyze ACECs might have prevented planners from recommending additional areas for protection. Most of the draft plans limited their analyses to simply designating all priority habitat within their planning areas as sagebrush reserves (covering more than 44 million acres in the West). The plans did not consider alternative proposals to protect a biologically defined subset of priority habitat as ACECs. The BLM’s all or nothing approach produced a predictable result: planners determined in every case that designating such vast areas of priority habitat as sagebrush reserves was unwarranted and would prevent the BLM from managing for other multiple uses on the affected lands.

This is in stark contrast to other BLM plans that have designated substantial new ACECs for species conservation. The BLM land use plan for the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation determined that ACEC designation was important to conserve Gunnison sage-grouse—even in a national conservation area. In southeastern Oregon, BLM designated the Borax Lake Area of Critical Environmental Concern to help conserve the Borax Lake chub. Increased protections within the ACEC were a contributing factor in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendation to downlist the species from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2012. And the Las Vegas Field Office in Nevada has designated ten ACECs to protect wildlife habitat, six of which were allocated to safeguard designated critical habitat for federally listed threatened and endangered species, including the desert tortoise; southwestern willow flycatcher; woundfin and Virgin River chub in the Virgin River, and numerous others that occur in Ash Meadows. The desert tortoise ACECs protect 1,097 square miles (702,160 acres) of critical habitat as “desert tortoise ACEC reserves.”

ACEC designation is by no means a conservation panacea. Each ACEC is individually crafted – there are no core substantive requirements for how they are managed. They can also be modified, including de-designated, through future resource management plan amendments and revisions. And sometimes restrictions and management prescriptions that accompany designation are not monitored or enforced, leading to degradation of resources for which the areas were established to protect. Asked during the sage-grouse planning process to designate ACECs for sage-grouse conservation, BLM staff repeatedly claimed that the prescriptions they were developing for managing land use and development in grouse habitat would offer equivalent or even more protection than ACECs would provide.

But we contend ACEC designations do matter. They put a line on a map and a sign in the ground that says “this place is special and needs to be managed for conservation.” ACEC designation helps lay the groundwork for more durable forms of protection in the future. The BLM is authorized under existing law and policy to provide durable protection for lands and resources identified for conservation purposes and compensatory mitigation, including granting rights-of-way (43 U.S.C. §§ 1761(a)(4),(7)), securing easements (43 U.S.C. § 1732(b); 43 C.F.R. § 2920), and executing land withdrawals (43 U.S.C. § 1714(d)(1), § 1702(c)) under FLPMA. These actions, however, would benefit from an ACEC framework that outlines the values targeted for conservation and needed management criteria to preserve them.

The BLM should revisit its ACEC analyses for sage-grouse and consider designating a subset of priority habitat as sagebrush reserves in the records of decision for the final land use plans. A thorough analysis would support designating new ACECs, research natural areas, and similar administrative designations on public lands to conserve sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species.

Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Threat Multiplier: Climate Change Exacerbates Risks to Sage-grouse

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey states that “climate change may pose substantial future risk to sagebrush habitat in southwestern Wyoming.”

Climate change is a recognized threat to sage-grouse1 that is also predicted to have deleterious impacts on sagebrush steppe.2  Most climate change simulations predict sagebrush steppe will contract as mean temperatures increase and the frost line shifts northward.3 In the worst case scenario, sagebrush species are simulated to contract to just 20 percent of current distribution.4 Previous studies project that the largest remaining areas will be in southern Wyoming and in the gap between the northern and central Rocky Mountains, followed by areas along the northern edge of the Snake River Plateau and small patches in Washington, Oregon and Nevada.5 Sagebrush steppe may also shift northward in response to increased temperatures.6

The new research by the U.S. Geological Survey is notable because the scientists conducted their study in southwestern Wyoming, finding that climate change is likely to eliminate over 11 percent of sage-grouse nesting habitat in what is otherwise expected to be a stronghold for the species. The authors caution, “[g]iven declining sage-grouse populations are suffering from other habitat degradation forces, a potential additional 11% loss of future habitat from climate change could be very detrimental to some populations.”

Defenders of Wildlife evaluated (see pages 28-29 in linked report) if and how draft federal conservation plans developed under the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy addressed climate change impacts on sage-grouse. All of the draft plans acknowledged that climate change presents challenges to resource management, and many listed climate change as a planning issue to be addressed in management alternatives. Several plans specifically identified sage-grouse as a species that may be harmed by climate change, including the HiLine Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. “[S]ensitive species in the planning area, such as greater sage-grouse, which are already stressed by declining habitat, increased development, and other factors, could experience additional pressures due to climate change” (HiLine 260; 434).

Yet, only two of fifteen draft plans proposed more than marginal conservation measures to preserve or restore habitat resiliency in areas where scientists predict sagebrush steppe will still persist in 50-100 years. In fact, in four plans (including the plan covering southwestern Wyoming), the Bureau of Land Management claimed it had “no…resource planning program for addressing [climate change] effects to [sage-grouse] and its habitat.” This is untrue. The agency is required under existing law and policy to consider the best available science in management planning (which would include analysis of climate change effects), and is specifically required to address climate change in planning under Secretarial Order 3289, Department of the Interior Manual chapter 523, and Executive Order 13653, among other guidance.

Measures for ameliorating the effects of climate change on species and landscapes include increasing the size and number of protected areas, maintaining and enhancing connectivity between areas, and identifying and protecting climate refugia likely to retain suitable climate/habitat conditions in the future (even if not currently occupied by the species of concern). Management should also seek to control invasive species, sustain ecosystem processes and functions, and restore degraded habitat to enhance ecosystem resilience to climate change.7

Properly addressing climate change through the Planning Strategy would require federal agencies to analyze the effectiveness of their proposed conservation actions in light of climate change impacts and make appropriate modifications to ensure they are effective over the long-term. Proper analysis of climate change would also require agencies to examine the cumulative environmental consequences of their proposed actions in a changed climate as their baseline for analysis. For example, the impacts of habitat disturbance may be more pronounced when combined with the effects of climate change (as the draft HiLine plan indicated), which could lead agencies to different management decisions about whether, where, how much, and in what manner development activities should occur.

This is in fact the take away from the new USGS study: if we can expect upwards of an 11 percent loss of important sage-grouse habitat due to climate change, agencies should increase protections from other disturbances we can control now to give sage-grouse a fighting chance in the future.


1 Connelly et al. 2011b: 556, Table 24.2; Blomberg et al. 2012; van Kooten et al. 2007.
2 Schlaepfer et al. 2012; Neilson et al. 2005.
3 Blomberg et al. 2012; Neilson et al. 2005.
4 Wisdom et al. 2005b: 206, citing Neilson et al. 2005.
5 See Miller et al. 2011: 181, Fig. 10.19.
6 Schlaepfer et al. 2012; Shafer et al. 2001.
7 Chester et al. 2012; NFWPCAS 2012.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Full page photo

Sage-grouse, Grazing Management, and Voluntary Permit Retirement

Full page photo

Livestock grazing can negatively affect riparian areas that are important to sage-grouse and other wildlife in the West. Oregon Natural Desert Association

At least 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse, none more pervasive than domestic livestock grazing. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the largest landowner in the American West, administers approximately 18,000 grazing permits and leases to graze almost 13 million animal unit months on 160 million acres of public lands, including large swaths of sage-grouse habitat. The U.S. Forest Service also permits grazing on millions of acres of sage-grouse range. More than 99 percent of remaining sagebrush steppe has been affected by livestock and approximately 30 percent has been heavily grazed.

Grazing can negatively affect sage-grouse in a variety of ways1 and livestock management was an identified planning issue in each of the fifteen draft plan amendments and sub-regional environmental impact statements (plans) developed under the federal National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy.

In March, conservation organizations sent a letter to the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture urging the BLM and the Forest Service to adopt adequate regulatory mechanisms in the final plans to manage grazing to avoid harming sage-grouse—and to immediately incorporate them into grazing permits as terms and conditions for grazing use on associated grazing allotments. Current law allows both agencies to update grazing permits in the land use planning process, rather than wait to implement the new measures over many years as each 10-year permit comes up for renewal.

The organizations also recommended that federal agencies adopt measures to facilitate voluntary grazing permit retirement on allotments in sage-grouse habitat. While every one of the draft plans developed under the planning strategy would continue livestock grazing in sage-grouse range, most of them also recognized the benefits of eliminating grazing to conserve the species.2

In fact, all fifteen draft plans analyzed voluntary grazing permit retirement as a mechanism for conserving the species in at least one management alternative. Nine of them included some form of voluntary grazing permit retirement in their preferred alternatives (typically limited to priority habitat areas),3 including the now final Resource Management Plan for the Lander Field Office.4

Federal agencies are increasingly using voluntary grazing permit retirement to resolve grazing conflicts on public lands. Willing permittees are usually compensated by a third party to relinquish their grazing permits for retirement, typically by a conservation or sporting organization or other public lands user group.

Voluntary grazing permit retirement may be a particularly useful tool in sagebrush habitat mitigation programs, which could also provide the funds needed to facilitate retirement. Permit retirement offers measureable, and durable conservation benefits that comport with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Greater Sage-Grouse Range-Wide Mitigation Framework (2014) and the Department of the Interior’s A Strategy for Improving the Mitigation Policies and Practices of The Department of the Interior (2014).

The BLM and Forest Service can improve voluntary grazing permit retirement provisions in the final sage-grouse plans. Many of the preferred alternatives in draft plans that would allow for grazing permit retirement also imposed extra conditions that could hinder retiring permits in practice. For example, some plans would require land managers to prepare additional (and unnecessary) analysis before determining whether to retire permits voluntarily relinquished by grazing permittees. Others would allow managers to accept permits for retirement, but then convert the associated grazing allotments into reserve allotments or grass banks for future grazing use, potentially diminishing their conservation value.

The BLM and Forest Service should adopt a simple, straight-forward provision in the Records of Decision for sage-grouse plans that would immediately retire grazing permits in priority habitat for sage-grouse wherever and whenever ranchers might decide to relinquish them. Doing so would be a win-win for wildlife and willing grazing permittees alike.


1 Livestock grazing is considered the single most important influence on sagebrush habitats and fire regimes throughout the Intermountain West in the past 140 years (Knick et al. 2005: 68). Grazing remains the most widespread use of sagebrush steppe and almost all sagebrush habitat is managed for grazing (Connelly et al. 2004; Knick et al. 2003; Knick et al. 2011). Livestock grazing disturbs the soil, removes native vegetation, spreads invasive species and limits productivity in sagebrush steppe (Knick et al. 2005; Knick et al. 2003; Reisner et al. 2013; West 1983). Cattle or sheep grazing in sage-grouse nesting and brood-rearing habitat can negatively affect habitat quality; nutrition for gravid hens; clutch size; nesting success; and/or chick survival (Connelly and Braun 1997; Beck and Mitchell 2000; Barnett and Crawford 1994; Coggins 1998; Aldridge and Brigham 2003). Livestock may directly compete with sage-grouse for grasses, forbs and shrub species; trample vegetation and sage-grouse nests; disturb individual birds and cause nest abandonment (Vallentine 1990; Pederson et al. 2003; Call and Maser 1985; Holloran and Anderson 2005; Coates 2007).

Grazing management was identified as a threat to sage-grouse by three expert panels and in recent reviews (Connelly et al. 2011b: 555-556, Tables 24.1, 24.2). Impacts attributable to historic or heavy grazing in sage-grouse habitat have not been remedied because plant communities are still not given rest from grazing, even under ecologically oriented grazing schemes (Connelly et al. 2004: 7-30 – 7-31, citing others). Furthermore, water developments have increased the area that can be grazed, increasing the distribution and often the intensity of grazing, so that even where livestock numbers have been reduced, they still exert a significant influence on those habitats (Connelly et al. 2004: 7-33). “Even though livestock numbers [are] considerably [reduced from historic use], and management across the West has steadily improved, acres continue to transition away from reference (historic, potential, and [or] desired) conditions” (Manier et al. 2013, citing Cagney et al. 2010). Federal government scientists have suggested that “livestock grazing across the public lands of western landscapes … will continue to impact the quality of those habitats and their ability to support source populations of sagebrush bird species” (Rich et al. 2005: 592).

2 The BLM has identified multiple benefits of eliminating livestock grazing in draft sage-grouse plans, including in the draft Northwest Colorado plan: “[e]limination of livestock grazing…would maintain or improve overall watershed health and water quality…decrease hoof compaction of soil surfaces. When combined with the annual freeze-thaw cycle, this may decrease soil bulk density and improve soil moisture conditions, which facilitates vegetation germination and root development. Removing livestock would also increase plant litter and live vegetative ground cover, which would provide more protection from wind and water erosion. Eliminating livestock grazing…would also eliminate water quality impacts associated with the deposition of manure and urine into surface water (Northwest Colorado: 776). As the agency stated in its draft supplement to the Bighorn Basin plan, “even where sagebrush steppe evolved with some herbivory, removing livestock from the landscape would be a net benefit for sage-grouse” (Bighorn Basin Supplemental ES-9, 4-76, emphasis added).

3 The draft Billings and Pompey’s Pillar National Monument (2-116 – 2-117, Table 2-6.2), HiLine (68), Idaho and Southwestern Montana (alternative D, vol. 2, 2-137, Table 2-18, D-LG/RM-7), Miles City (2-50, Table 2.1, Action 24), Nevada and Northeastern California (ch. 2, 207, Table 2-5, Action D-LG 23), Oregon (2-86, Table 2-6, D-LG/RM 26), South Dakota (37) and Wyoming (2-182, Table 2-5) plans include some form of voluntary grazing permit retirement in their preferred alternatives. Six plans considered voluntary grazing permit retirement in management alternatives other than the preferred alternative, including the Bighorn (Bighorn Basin Supplemental EIS: 2-35, Alternatives E and F); Lewistown (2-35, Table 2-4, Alternatives B and C); North Dakota (2-29, Table 2-3 (Alternatives B and C); Northwest Colorado (159, Table 2-4, Alternatives B and C); and Utah (2-83, Table 2-1, Alternatives B and C2) plans. The draft Buffalo plan proposed designating and managing “resource reserve” allotments in the preferred alternative (169, Table 2.31, Grazing-6020), which the BLM indicated in the draft Northwest Colorado plan could be created through voluntary grazing permit retirement (736).

4 Lander ROD: 98, Record 606. The Record of Decision for the Lander plan also defines grazing permit “retirement” as “[e]nding livestock grazing on a specific area of land” (i.e., the associated grazing allotment) (Lander ROD: 175).

Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Scientists Warn Federal Government of Failed Sage-grouse Conservation Plans

Even as Congress threatens to meddle again in sage-grouse conservation, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are moving forward on their unprecedented planning process to protect and recover the species on more than 60 million acres of public land. Credit to the agencies—it’s difficult to do one’s job with legislators scrutinizing your every step. But there are also some problems with the planning process that are entirely the agencies’ doing. Last week independent sage-grouse scientists highlighted those problems in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that may be pivotal to the future of the species. The scientists’ letter, endorsed by 11 experts on sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats, notes that draft conservation plans produced as part of the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy do not correspond with the best available science, and so may fail to conserve the species and its habitat. As the scientists clearly, concisely stated, there are just some basic measures that management plans must adopt if they are to successfully protect and recover sage-grouse:

  • Protect sage-grouse breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitats from oil and gas drilling and other development. It is well known that oil, gas and grouse don’t mix.
  • Ensure that livestock grazing is managed to allow for tall grasses and other vegetation to provide cover for sage-grouse hens and chicks from predators. Sage-grouse evolved with golden eagles, ravens and coyotes, but they need healthy habitat with lots of places to hide.
  • Do not purposefully burn, plow, spray or otherwise eliminate sagebrush habitat. There’s less and less of the Sagebrush Sea left every year for sage-grouse and hundreds of other wildlife. We’ve got to protect what’s left of the landscape.

The scientists’ letter affirms Defenders of Wildlife’s own assessment of the planning process last spring, finding that key management prescriptions in the draft plans fell short of what science recommends for conserving sage-grouse. The agencies’ failure to adopt these measures is perplexing to say the least, since the BLM itself has identified them as being important for the species’ persistence.

Fortunately, there is still time for federal planners to improve conservation plans for the grouse, and we understand that the agencies are working to strengthen certain measures in the final plans. But the finals can’t merely be better than the drafts—they’ve got to include all of the science-based standards included in the scientists’ letter if they are to achieve their purpose of conserving sage-grouse and their habitat. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are expected to release final plans this spring, when they will be subject to another round of public input. Armed with the scientists’ letter, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners will once again weigh in with recommendations to improve conservation measures for this iconic bird and the quintessential western habitat that it represents.

Posted in Energy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments


BLM Backsliding on Best Available Science

sage-grouse_1_Tatiana_GettlemanGreater 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.

Posted in ESA, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Sage-Grouse in the Crosshairs

It’s “silly season” in Congress. It’s an election year and the legislative session is winding down, which means that certain legislators and special interests have begun to purposefully introduce nonsensical legislation in the House and Senate this summer as part of an endless game of Congressional politics. These bills are not intended to advance public policy, but to force a response from political opponents in an attempt to gain an advantage in elections back home.

Sage-grouse, the charismatic ambassador of the Sagebrush Sea, have recently become a target in this deceptive practice. More than a decade after being petitioned for listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally consider the sage-grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. The date certain for a listing decision has also prompted federal agencies and western states to engage in unprecedented planning processes to implement new conservation measures to protect the grouse.

Unfortunately, there are some in Congress who just can’t help but politicize wildlife conservation. This month, legislation was introduced in the House and the Senate, euphemistically named “Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act,” that would muck up the listing process for sage-grouse by allowing states to bar the federal government from even considering the species for protection for at least 10 years. This bill is bad for sage-grouse, bad for public lands, bad for stakeholders and bad government. Defenders of Wildlife has identified at least seven reasons why Congress should ignore it.

The legislation is bad for sage-grouse. The grouse is suffering from death by a thousand cuts—at least 26 land uses and related factors affect the species. Any Congressional effort to extend the current timeline would subvert the established science-based administrative process the Fish and Wildlife Service uses for determining whether a species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. Recent data indicate that sage-grouse populations continue to decline. Given the conservation challenges facing the sage-grouse, a listing determination is overdue.

The legislation is bad for public lands. If we don’t address sage-grouse conservation needs now, then saving the species from potential extinction – which includes conserving its remaining sagebrush habitat, much of which is on public lands – will be even more difficult, expensive and disruptive in the future.

The legislation is bad for landowners who want to work to improve habitat on private lands for sage-grouse, but need federal assistance to do so. Those funds may dry up if the sage-grouse listing decision is delayed for a decade.

The legislation is bad for stakeholders that would like certainty about sage-grouse conservation and the species’ status. Resource developers and landowners can better plan for their own activities in sage-grouse habitat when they know what will be required to protect and recover the species.

The legislation is unnecessary. Current planning efforts are on schedule to finalize conservation plans in time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider them in its listing decision in 2015. Resources, timelines and the incentive for these processes are hinged on the current decision deadline. The challenge facing these planning processes is not the need for more time, but greater resolve among federal agencies and western states to do what is required to conserve sage-grouse. The current decision date ensures continued federal and state commitment to conservation efforts.

The legislation is a beachhead for delaying any sage-grouse listing indefinitely. Will the Fish and Wildlife Service actually be allowed to consider the sage-grouse for listing after 10 years? Or will Congress delay listing again?

The legislation is a bad precedent. The Endangered Species Act has proven to be overwhelmingly successful in preventing the extinction of species since its enactment 40 years ago. Congress should allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to process species listing decisions under the act in accordance with the best available science. Some species have waited for more than 30 years for agency action. Congress should not further delay these scientific decisions by micromanaging the Endangered Species Act on a species-by-species basis, and undermining important administrative decision-making under the law.

Stay tuned, as we expect to see more silliness from this Congress before the session finally ends.


Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Federal Grazing Permits and Leases Do Not Convey “Grazing Rights” on Public Lands

Nevada public lands rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees—and his resultant multi-decadal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management—became front page news this week when the agency finally acted on court orders to remove Bundy’s trespass cattle from the public domain. It’s a fascinating, exasperating story that has yet to reach a conclusion.

News media and commentators of every stripe documented the heightened tensions this week as armed protesters confronted federal agents attempting to round-up Bundy’s livestock. Reporting has ranged from the meticulous to the uninformed to the inane (one critic stridently—and erroneously—claims the BLM was established in 1976 and is authorized to control land uses on all federal, state and private lands nationwide, among other outlandish contentions).

Unfortunately, many reports have mistakenly referred to Bundy’s grazing use as “grazing rights,” which suggests that public lands ranchers have a right to graze livestock on public lands. They don’t. Grazing permits and leases issued by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service allow the permit or lease holder the privilege, not a right to use publicly owned forage on federal public lands. This distinction was intended by Congress in the Taylor Grazing Act of 19341 (BLM) and the Granger-Thye Act of 1950 (Forest Service),2 articulated in agency regulations,3 restated in federal records,4 affirmed by scholars,5 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2000.6 Federal grazing permits and leases are revocable, amendable, non-assignable ten-year licenses to graze federal public lands that do not convey property rights to grazing permittees/lessees.

The misnomer of “grazing rights” could give the impression that livestock grazing on federal public lands has a superior position over other uses of those lands, which is untrue. Our public lands are managed for multiple uses and public values, including habitat for wildlife, sources of drinking water, and myriad recreational and sustainable economic activities. Federal law requires that grazing, like other profitable enterprise on the public domain, be conducted in a manner that accommodates other legitimate uses of public lands, waters and resources.

We hope the news media adopt more accurate terms when referring to public lands grazing, such as “grazing privileges,” “grazing permit,” “grazing lease,” or the generic “grazing license.”

1 43 U.S.C. sec. 315b.
2 16 U.S.C. sec. 580(l).
3 43 C.F.R. sec. 4130.2(c) (BLM regulation); 36 C.F.R. sec. 222.3(b) (Forest Service regulation).
4 E.g., USDI-BLM, USDA-Forest Service. 1995. Rangeland Reform ’94 Final Environmental Impact Statement. USDI-BLM. Washington, D.C.: 125.
6 Public Lands Council v. Babbitt, 529 U.S. 728, 741 (2000). See also U.S. v. Fuller, 409 U.S. 488 (1973) (holding that the federal government is not required by the Fifth Amendment to compensate a property owner in a condemnation action for the extra value of his private property attributed to his federal grazing permit).

Posted in Federal Policy, Public Lands0 Comments

We’ve Got to Protect What’s Left of the Sagebrush Sea

Despite its immense size, the Sagebrush Sea is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Half the landscape has already been lost to agriculture and urban development, and millions of more acres have been damaged by invasive weeds, unnatural fire, and harmful land uses.

The continued loss and degradation of sagebrush grasslands threatens dozens of native flora and fauna, including the charismatic greater sage-grouse. The sage-grouse is a candidate species for listing under theEndangered Species Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to consider the bird for protection in 2015.

Restoring degraded sagebrush habitat is difficult, expensive and often unsuccessful. And even where restoration works, new research led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found that it could take decades before sage-grouse use the area again. The scientists found that burned habitat reseeded after fire in the Great Basin might require more than 20 years to regrow suitable sagebrush habitat for grouse and other species. This is bad news for an ecosystem that is prone to huge and devastating wildfires.

According to PhysOrg, “historically, the Great Basin burned in smaller, patchier conflagrations, at intervals on the order of once per century. Managers are now seeing sagebrush country burn every 20 years in parts of the Great Basin, fueled by drought and vigorous non-natives like cheatgrass.”

Federal agencies manage more than half of remaining sage-grouse habitat in the West. Prompted by the pending listing decision, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have initiated anunprecedented planning process to update management plans with new conservation measures for the species. The new USGS research is important to this effort. As the authors stated, “conservation and protection of ‘what’s left’ is increasingly important [for sage-grouse conservation].”

Defenders of Wildlife has been involved in the planning process from the start, meeting with administration officials, submitting comments on the draft plans and reporting where proposed conservation measures could fail to conserve and restore sage-grouse. Throughout this process, Defenders has ardently held that federal agencies must, first and foremost, protect what’s left of the Sagebrush Sea! Management plans must exclude disturbance and degradation in the best remaining habitat for sage-grouse, and prioritize restoration in areas where restoration methods have the greatest chance for success.

We look forward to working with agencies and partners to finalize effective conservation plans to protect the Sagebrush Sea for sage-grouse and other sensitive species, and people who live, work and love the landscape.


Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments


Earthworm Invasions: Here’s Something to Make us Squirm

An astounding sixty of the 182 total species of earthworms that occur in the United States and Canada come from other lands. Not all of these foreign earthworms are destructive, but about 16 European and Asian varieties do real damage to our native ecosystems. During the Wisconsonian glaciation, native earthworms in North America were severely impacted by the ice sheets then covering much of the continent. In areas north of this glacial boundary, the absence or lowered populations of native earthworms later facilitated the spread of the exotic invaders.

Invasive, exotic species are recognized as a leading cause in species’ declines and extinctions. Exotic species tend conjure up the most conspicuous instances, for example, pythons invading the Everglades or lionfish in the Florida Keys and Caribbean. On a more subtle level, exotic plants and animals often compete with native species and change entire ecosystems, such as when multiflora rose take over wetlands inhabited by bog turtles. Introduced earthworms probably do not even come to mind as an exotic nuisance. Nevertheless, earthworm invasions and their ability to damage ecosystems have become a global problem. Invasive worms have now spread through almost every habitat, including desert oases. Except for Antarctica, they occur on every continent and many oceanic islands.

Usually out of sight, all worms tend to look more or less the same. And earthworms would seem to be a good thing. Gardeners, composters, fishermen, students needing specimens for dissection, and robins feeding young certainly think of worms in positive terms. The role that earthworms play in building and aerating soils is well known. In the early 1880s Darwin demonstrated that worms on just one acre of land could convert living and dead vegetation into 18 tons of productive soil in just twelve months.

Earthworm invasions have depleted herbaceous plants and seedlings, the litter layer, and led to patches of bare soil in this Wisconsin forest. Photo by Scott Loss

Earthworm invasions have depleted herbaceous plants and seedlings, the litter layer, and led to patches of bare soil in this Wisconsin forest. Photo by Scott Loss, Smithsonian Magazine

Under normal conditions it takes microbes and fungi three to five years to decompose a deciduous leaf to the point that it becomes incorporated into the soil. In a forest infested with introduced night crawlers, however, this process takes as little as four weeks. Although organic duff covering a forest floor may take decades to accumulate, duff can be consumed by introduced earthworms in short order. Accumulation of undecayed and decaying litter is an important feature of temperate forest ecosystems. Exotic earthworms decompose this leaf layer more rapidly than their native counterparts, compromising this micro-habitat on the forest floor. Conditions become unsuitable for seed germination and the various creatures dependent on leaf layer for foraging, humidity, and concealment. In addition, the levels of moisture, temperature, pH, and nutrient levels change substantially. Eventually, this redistribution of organic matter and nutrient loss results in declines in native understory plant cover and an increase in nonnative plants. Soils are often exposed as every leaf, small seed, and tiny twig is devoured by the highly-efficient introduced worms. Soil exposure can then lead to erosion.

Many of the harmful invasive earthworms in the United States arrived in the 18th century. They were accidentally introduced in soil surrounding bulbs and rootstocks of plants brought to the New World by Europeans wanting familiar species for gardens and landscaping. In more recent times, additional species of worms were introduced from Europe and Asia, and cultured on worm farms for use as fish bait. The annual global export of earthworms is a multimillion-dollar business. Unlike many of our native species, these exotic worms are tolerant of disturbed habitats and have high reproductive rates.

Invasions of non-indigenous worms harm woodland wildlife. Worms alter the habitat used by ground roosting bats, ground foraging birds, terrestrial salamanders, and invertebrates that inhabit leaf litter. In addition, changes in leaf litter result in loss of mycorrhizal fungi, thereby paving the way for exotic plants. Because most of our native understory requires a deep, rich, and fertile layer of leaf litter for germination, these invasive earthworms threaten woodland ferns and spring wildflowers like bellworts, trilliums, yellow violets and wild ginger. Invasive earthworms have already denuded forests in the Great Lakes. It’s enough to make you squirm…

David S. Lee

Guest blogger

The Tortoise Reserve, White Lake, NC


J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

Posted in private lands, Public Lands0 Comments


Failing Report Card on Federal Efforts to Conserve Sage-grouse

Ranging over ten western states, greater sage-grouse have lost nearly half their original habitat, and their populations have experienced long-term declines. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the bird warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act – a decision that sparked concern among industries like oil and gas development and agriculture, which would prefer to use sage-grouse habitat for their own purposes. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and  the U.S. Forest Service as a cooperating agency, set out to improve management plans to support sage-grouse recovery before the Fish and Wildlife Service makes its formal listing decision in 2015. This new planning strategy is intended to update nearly 100 federal land use and management plans with new conservation measures for sage-grouse on 60 million acres of public land. Needless to say, given the inherent conflicts of interest, we were concerned that the needs of sage-grouse might not be prioritized in the planning process.

Today, Defenders released “In the Red: How Proposed Conservation Plans Fail to Protect Greater Sage-Grouse.” This comprehensive report documents how draft plans released under the federal National Greater Sage-grouse Planning Strategy fail to adopt conservation measures required to conserve and restore sage-grouse and their habitat.

Sage-grouse management plans, Defenders of Wildlife

The planning strategy partitions existing sage-grouse habitat up among 15 different management plans. ©Defenders of Wildlife

Greater sage-grouse are one of the best studied species in the West, and we poured over reams of published research and government and scientific reports to identify key strategies to conserve the grouse. We used these conservation measures to evaluate how well BLM’s draft plans would conserve and restore sage-grouse and their habitat.

What we found wasn’t pretty: Many of the conservation measures in the draft plans are biologically or legally inadequate, and must be improved in final plans in order to provide for the long-term conservation of sage-grouse. The plans were also markedly inconsistent, proposing dramatically different conservation measures for sage-grouse range-wide and even between adjacent planning areas. While sage-grouse occur across large landscapes, the planning process was partitioned into 15 different areas, each with its own approach to protecting sage-grouse. Dividing the habitat along these imaginary lines may be helpful from a human perspective, but not really for sage-grouse.

One measure that the BLM utterly failed to implement is designating new reserves for sage-grouse protection. Though the agency analyzed approximately 44 million acres of priority sage-grouse habitat for special designation, they only proposed to designate about 50,000 acres as reserves. This would mean that less than one percent of sage-grouse habitat would be specially protected for the species.

The good news is that federal planners have another chance to adopt effective conservation measures for sage-grouse in the final plans. In fact, most of the draft plans analyzed our key conservation measures, but simply declined to include them in their proposed management schemes. This means that the BLM doesn’t have to start over with the planning process to issue strong final plans for sage-grouse.

Federal lands are key to sage-grouse conservation and recovery. Our report includes recommendations for BLM to ensure that public lands, which contain the majority of remaining sagebrush habitat, contribute to the conservation and restoration of the species. Our recommendations to federal planners include:

  • Finalize the draft plans together in a centralized process that can more effectively address their many deficiencies and resolve their discrepancies so that the 15 final plans implement consistent, adequate, regulatory conservation measures to conserve and restore sage-grouse and their habitat.
  • Conserve essential habitat to support sage-grouse conservation and restoration, and permanently protect the most important areas as sagebrush reserves to serve as strongholds for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species.
  • Focus habitat restoration on areas most likely to improve habitat quality and connectivity to expand sage-grouse current range and reclaim parts of historic range for use by the species.
  • Account for the effects of climate change on sagebrush habitat by anticipating future habitat and species shifts and supporting habitat resilience to climate change.

Although sage-grouse may be the best-known species in the Sagebrush Sea, they are not the only species of conservation concern : more than 350 other fish, wildlife and plants in sagebrush grasslands are also at risk. Greater sage-grouse are an “umbrella species” for the landscape – by adopting the conservation measures in our report, the BLM can protect sage-grouse and benefit a host of other species dependent on sagebrush habitat. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to implement transformative, lasting conservation measures for an entire imperiled ecosystem. Let’s hope we get it right.


Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Strategically Growing the Refuge System

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued a draft “Strategic Growth Policy” for the National Wildlife Refuge System.  The draft policy is intended to guide how the Fish and Wildlife Service will add lands and new wildlife refuges to the refuge system.  This policy is sorely needed and long overdue. As the Service points out in the release of the draft policy, the complexities of modern conservation and its limited budgetary resources require the Service to be strategic in all facets of conservation, particularly when making long-term investments like land protection.

As I point out in my comments on the draft policy, climate change in particular requires the Service to reevaluate its approach to land protection policies.  The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, co-developed by the Service, states this new challenge well:

“Increasing the number, quality, and size of conservation areas can increase the opportunities for individual species to adapt to climate change, and also make it more likely that native biodiversity will be conserved. Some species’ habitat under climate change may be well outside their current or historic range. Healthy and biologically diverse ecosystems are likely to better withstand or adjust to the impacts of climate change. Increasing the number (redundancy) and distribution of protected fish, wildlife, and plant populations is important for the same reason. Establishing larger and more hospitable conservation areas for species to transition to will also increase opportunities for species to create new assemblages of species that are better able to persist in a dynamic climate.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy USFWS

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy USFWS

Another challenge will be providing corridors between conservation areas so that species can freely move to new locations with suitable habitat. Protecting and restoring large blocks of habitat and using linkages and corridors to develop networks for movement will facilitate connectivity. Riparian corridors, such as floodplains, are useful as a conduit for migratory species and for providing access to water. In addition, appropriate transitory or “stopover” habitat for migratory species can promote biological connectivity between non-physically connected areas.”

The first goal of the Wildlife Adaptation Strategy emphasizes the need for identifying and conserving areas for an “ecologically-connected network” of public and private terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine “conservation areas that are likely to be resilient to climate change and to support a broad range of species under changed conditions.”  In addition, the Wildlife Adaptation Strategy calls for the conservation and restoration of “ecological connections among conservation areas to facilitate fish, wildlife, and plant migration, range shifts, and other transitions caused by climate change.”  This goal was recently adopted by all the Landscape Conservation Cooperative Coordinators: “LCCs support the creation of an ecologically connected network of landscapes, as defined in the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.”  This should be the overarching goal of the Service’s Strategic Growth Policy, identifying the refuge system’s specific role in achieving this goal across the nation with partners.

The FWS derives its authority for developing this new policy from the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act which directs the Secretary of the Interior (acting through the Fish and Wildlife Service Director) to “plan and direct the continued growth of the System in a manner that is best designed to accomplish the mission of the System, to contribute to the conservation of the ecosystems of the United States, to complement efforts of States and other Federal agencies to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats, and to increase support for the System and participation from conservation partners and the public.”

The draft policy excluded the highlighted portions of this provision.  These mandates provide critical direction directly relevant to this policy, and should be incorporated and implemented in the final policy statement.  Importantly, this provision, in its entirety, provides the legislative authorization for the refuge system to support the ecologically-connected network of conservation areas identified in the Wildlife Adaptation Strategy.  In our view, this important provision of law guides the Service to assess the entire “conservation estate” (the existing mix of federal, state, tribal, local, and private conservation lands and waters) and build upon it, focusing on those ecosystems that are not sufficiently protected by our existing conservation network.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Image Courtesy of USFWS

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Image Courtesy of USFWS

The draft policy incorporates many important modern landscape-level conservation planning elements into planning for new and expanded refuges.  The policy requires land acquisition planners to explicitly identify conservation targets, look to “national, Regional, State, Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), or species-specific conservation, management, or recovery plans” for science-based management objectives and to help identify priority conservation areas.  The policy also requires projects to identify vulnerability and resiliency to climate change and other stressors and “describe how the Refuge System will mitigate stressors to ensure the project’s resiliency.”  Our comments focused on improving and strengthening the provisions pertaining to these important concepts to provide clarity to refuge land protection planners and ensure they are actually implemented and operationalized to make strategic conservation investments in the refuge system.

As the only federal land system that can administratively create new units, the refuge system has a unique role to play in conserving the nation’s wildlife and ecosystems in the face of climate change, rapid development, and other landscape stressors.  The final Strategic Growth Policy for the refuge system needs to ensure that refuges play this unique role in the most effective way possible.

Posted in Federal Policy, National Wildlife Refuges, 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.