Sage-grouse need large areas of healthy sagebrush habitat, and these places are rapidly disappearing due to wildfires, invasive species and development. Sage-grouse, present in just over half their historical range, are declining at 1% per year.
For a number of years, the Idaho Conservation League has been working with ranchers, sportsmen and women, bird watchers, government agencies and energy companies to protect and restore habitat for sage-grouse and other species. We have served on the Idaho Sage-grouse Advisory Committee, which coordinates conservation efforts, as well as the Governor’s Sage-grouse Task Force. As a result of these efforts, the Bureau of Land Management developed the BLM Sage-grouse Plan Amendments (sage-grouse plan), which were deemed sufficient to conserve sage-grouse and keep them off the endangered species list.
Review Could Throw Out Years of Work
Now, in addition to the threats of wildfire, invasive species and development, sage-grouse populations could be harmed by a new threat-special interests who have the ear of the current administration. Last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered that revisions be considered to the sage-grouse plan that was adopted under the Obama administration. The Secretary said that more efforts should be placed investigating “captive breeding facilities” for sage-grouse (see the track record on this approach for salmon) and removing the barriers to killing sage-grouse predators such as ravens (also debunked).
Many are concerned that this review could open the door to discarding key components of the BLM’s plan to protect Idaho’s sage-grouse, throwing years of solid, community-based conservation work out the door. Weakening the sage-grouse plan could take away important tools needed to address the threats of wildfires and invasive annual grasses; discourage future conservation efforts; increase uncertainty for states, counties and citizens; remove incentives for local, state and federal agencies to coordinate efforts; and ultimately lead back to a listing decision.
Instead, if any changes are warranted, the BLM should use a strategic administrative process that focuses discussions on the issues at hand. This process should retain all the components that help Idahoans address the threats of fire and invasive annual grasses. The BLM needs to recognize that fire and cheatgrass don’t recognize boundaries. We can lose hundreds of thousands of acres of sage-grouse habitat in one single fire. The losses affect private, state and public lands.
Ultimately, the sage-grouse plan needs to include an “all hands, all lands” approach that increases coordination among communities and local, state and federal land managers. Any adjustments in the plan needs to provide additional resources so folks can get work done to protect sage-grouse habitat and restore habitat.
Every public land user in Idaho knows to leave things better than you found them. This is particularly important with regard to recovering Idaho’s sage-grouse populations. If sage-grouse numbers are healthy and stable, there is more certainty for everyone who cares about Idaho’s sagebrush steppe or makes a living there.
This is why the original sage-grouse plan required developers who wanted to build an infrastructure project in sage-grouse habitat (such as transmission lines, roads or mines) to first avoid and minimize harm to sage-grouse. Any remaining impacts would have to be mitigated with an offset program that recovered sage-grouse in other areas. To help with sage-grouse recovery and to recognize that mitigation is not always completely successful, the original sage-grouse plan called for a net conservation gain for mitigation projects.
The BLM is now considering releasing developers from this commitment and requiring them to pay only for the exact estimated amount of habitat loss. This approach would place all the financial burden for sage-grouse conservation and restoration on taxpayers and exempt the developers who are getting richer by damaging sage-grouse habitat. Idahoans and folks from across the country are already helping fund recover sage-grouse efforts, even if their businesses models don’t affect sage-grouse habitat. It’s simply the right thing to do.
It is only fair that developers "pay to play" if their activities harm sage-grouse. More mindful companies are already factoring these costs into their projects. The BLM should retain the requirement for a net conservation gain and use Idaho’s existing sage-grouse mitigation framework to make sure that everyone continues to pay their fair share. Mitigation standards need to factor in the time delay for sagebrush restoration as well as the failure rate due to wildfire or drought. The BLM and state of Idaho should invest in a mitigation program that starts restoration efforts now, knowing that they will be needed later.
Sage-grouse are sensitive to human disturbance, particularly during mating and nesting. In the spring, sage-grouse gather in open areas called leks where males try to attract females with their famous strutting. The females usually nest within a short distance of these leks.
Buffers are areas around leks where human activities are generally restricted. Scientific studies support starting with a 4-mile buffer and then factoring in topography and other circumstances. The original sage-grouse plan recommended using the lower end (least protective) buffer range of 3.1 miles. Developers are arguing that even this buffer is too big and should be shrunk.
If there is a process to shrink buffers due to site-specific circumstances, there should also be one for increasing buffers as needed and as informed by the best available science.
The sage-grouse plan established triggers that ushered in more protective management in case sage-grouse populations or habitat dropped below certain levels. This was a commonsense approach for adapting to threats. But the more protective measures don’t necessarily match or guard against the initial reason for the population or habitat decline.
The BLM should reevaluate the trigger mechanism to ensure that more protective measures focus on the most relevant threats, without losing sight of other threats. The BLM should also clarify the criteria for removing the more protective measures if and when the population or habitat recovers.
Required Design Features
Recovering sage-grouse requires recovering their habitat. For that reason, design features can be implemented to minimize damage from human activities to sage-grouse. Design features are required anywhere there are sage-grouse, even in areas of lower-quality habitat. We know that we are going to lose more habitat to wildfire so we have to have a policy that “protects the best and restores the rest.”
The BLM is considering allowing exceptions to these design features in lower-quality “general” habitat areas with the idea that it will discourage development in “core” and “important” areas. We support the concept of directing developers and harmful activities outside core and important areas for sage-grouse, but we are concerned about allowing these activities into any sage-grouse habitat at all. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM land with no sage-grouse habitat and little or no potential to be sage-grouse habitat.
Instead of directing developers and allowing disturbing activities in general areas, the BLM should direct them to areas with no sage-grouse habitat. Design features should be retained so that developers are encouraged to develop outside sage-grouse habitat. Additional details could be worked out to raise the standards for design features in core and important areas while retaining them in general habitat.
Habitat Boundary Adjustments
Habitat management areas should be updated to exclude areas not serving as sage-grouse habitat and to add areas that do provide quality habitat. Since sage-grouse travel widely, these adjustments should also examine habitat on state and private properties where possible.
You Can Take Action
Despite many people coming together to hammer out sage-grouse management, the resulting plans could be undone all too easily. Fortunately, the BLM’s public scoping period is open until Dec 1, 2017. Speak up for the sage-grouse now-before they fall prey to this latest threat.