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Sage-grouse, Grazing Management, and Voluntary Permit Retirement

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Livestock grazing can negative effects on 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 habitat, 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 the 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 extra (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 Lands1 Comment

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

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


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…


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

Sage-Grouse: Ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea

When they’re not engaged in their flamboyant spring mating displays, greater sage-grouse spend the rest of year making a living on vast sagebrush grasslands in the West called the “Sagebrush Sea.” In fact, sage-grouse cannot survive without sagebrush, and they need lots of it. This makes sage-grouse an ideal “umbrella” species for sagebrush habitats. 

Umbrella species typically require large expanses of healthy habitat to survive. Because of that requirement, protecting these species also benefits other fish, wildlife and plants within these large areas. Animals of any size can be an umbrella species. Large carnivores, like grizzly bears, are umbrella species for the forests where they roam, and little insects, like the bay checkerspot butterfly, serve the same role for rare native grasslands where they occur.

Though their numbers are diminishing, sage-grouse still live on about 100 million acres in the West. Individual groups of grouse are known to migrate up to 100 miles every year as they move between seasonal habitats. These expansive areas include sagebrush habitat, but also lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, aspen groves, alkali flats, salt flats, sand dunes and rocky bluffs.

Managed properly, this diverse mosaic of habitats supports hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, including the powerful northern harrier, the tiny pygmy rabbit, the fleet-footed pronghorn and the gorgeous Lahontan cutthroat trout. The sagebrush ecosystem is a migratory corridor for birds and important winter habitat for mule deer and elk. At least 15 species of raptors use sagebrush grasslands, and a full complement of carnivores inhabit the landscape, from weasels to mountain lions.

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in the world. Adults measure 8-11 inches and weigh a half-pound to a pound. The pygmy rabbit is also one of only two rabbits that digs its own burrow. It is typically found foraging under stands of big sagebrush species on deep soils, an increasingly rare habitat type in the Sagebrush Sea.

Unfortunately, as sage-grouse have declined in the West, so have a multitude of other species. More than 350 plant, fish and wildlife species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Of these, approximately 60 species are listed or are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Making matters worse, threats posed by improper land use, weed incursion, wildfire and climate change are increasing on the landscape. Continued habitat loss and degradation is threatening a suite of sagebrush birds, including the sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher. Excessive pumping and water diversions are drying up streams and springs, imperiling native fish. Livestock grazing and fire have severely reduced habitat for the pygmy rabbit, and oil and gas drilling has eliminated winter range for mule deer.

Sage-grouse to the rescue!

Federal and state agencies are currently engaged in an unprecedented planning process to conserve sage-grouse across the West. The new plans will affect more than 60 million acres of public lands. If these agencies adhere to the science and abide by their own planning directives, the conservation measures they develop and implement for sage-grouse will have enormous benefits for other species. New land use restrictions, wildlife reserves and restoration programs would ensure that sage-grouse, and a multitude of other fish and wildlife species, survive and flourish on the landscape. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily involved in the planning process and invite you to join us in this important endeavor!

Umbrella species serve as ambassadors for the ecosystems where they live and, while many ecosystems have an umbrella species, few are as charismatic as sage-grouse. The Sagebrush Sea and all of the fish and wildlife that live there are fortunate to be represented by this charming bird.

Posted in 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.