Climate, population drops, prompt BLM to revise sage grouse plans


WYOMING -- Citing population declines, climate change, habitat loss and other factors, the Bureau of Land Management will revise Western conservation plans for greater sage grouse, including in Wyoming where about 38 percent of the birds live on a landscape heavily used by the state’s industries.

The Bureau’s announcement Monday will affect habitat conservation and restoration plans across 10 states, covering 67 million acres the agency manages, according to a notice published in the Federal Register. The review marks another turnaround for the imperiled bird, which has been a policy ping-pong species volleyed between political parties and administrations.

The BLM has found that existing grouse conservation plans “are potentially inconsistent with new science and rapid changes affecting the BLM’s management of the public lands,” the agency said. Those include climate change, drought, loss of habitat, more frequent wildland fires and diminished riparian areas.

The review will affect more than 70 grouse conservation plans through environmental impact statements that will address not only BLM surface acreage but oil, gas and coal reserves the agency administers under private land.

New science and conditions merit revisions to conservation plans adopted in 2015 that were forged to keep the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from officially declaring the imperiled bird threatened or endangered. While there’s no firm estimate of sage grouse numbers across the West, wildlife agencies track trends, which reveal a significant decline over many years, federal scientists say.

The review also will consider “the people who rely on sagebrush lands to support their livelihoods and traditions,” the BLM stated. But stock growers are wary about more restrictive rules in the conservation standards.

The new direction “creates a lot of uneasiness,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Wyoming’s own sage grouse plan, implemented under a gubernatorial order and including local working groups, should satisfy the BLM and not require changes, he said.

The BLM’s review will address “sagebrush focal areas,” where conservationists say preventing disturbance to habitat is paramount. The review will consider requiring replacement for lost habitat and no-go buffer areas around breeding-ground leks. Stock grazing, mineral leasing and wild horse and burro management also will come under the microscope along with invasive plant species and wildfires.

BLM’s announcement invigorated conservationists. “It’s high time for an ambitious plan to protect the sage grouse and save the sagebrush sea,” Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. “If the Bureau would just get serious about limiting livestock grazing and industrial use in sage grouse habitat, that would go a long way toward protecting the species.”

Conservation will require “significant changes to how commercial enterprises are conducting their activities in sage grouse habitats,” her statement said.

The group, which opposes livestock grazing on public land, found existing conservation plans “riddled with loopholes, [that] failed to protect major proportions of priority habitat,” Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement. Protections are “far lower than what we know sage grouse need to survive based on science,” he said.

The review is “an opportunity to embrace a science-based approach and stop the greater sage grouse’s slow slide toward extinction,” Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Wyoming’s sage grouse team leader Bob Budd told WyoFile he has faith in Wyoming’s grouse conservation plans and is confident that they could use, at the most, fine tuning.

“We don’t believe in a wide-open, start-over process,” he said. “I hope we don’t end up going out and casting as wide a net as the [BLM] notice says.”

Wyoming has methods in place to address some of the BLM’s areas of concern, Budd said, including mineral leasing and grazing. For ranchers, he said, it’s unrealistic to require, for example, they leave stubble at a certain height after grazing — about 6 inches — for grouse cover.

“The science says there’s a variability — you don’t just adopt a number and say it’s the magic number,” Budd said.

The state also has a system to make up for lost habitat. “We in Wyoming have established standards from how development will occur to where we avoid, minimize and provide for compensatory mitigation,” Budd said. “Leasing itself is not the issue — it’s how you develop.”

He also cautioned about drawing long-range conclusions on historic population numbers. Wyoming only adopted a rigorous system for estimating grouse numbers in the mid to late 1980s, he said. Today the state surveys hundreds of breeding ground leks annually to help determine population trends, far beyond the “handful of lek counts” used before that time.

“Am I worried? No,” he said. “Am I concerned? Yes.” Concerned about conifer invasion of sagebrush lands, concerned about invasive species and “damn right” concerned about rural subdivisions.

Oil and gas companies see the review as “just another attempt to shut down the industry in Wyoming,” said Ryan McConnaughey, spokesman for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. “The Biden administration is trying everything it can to shut down leasing on federal lands,” he said.

The industry participates in the Sage Grouse Implementation Team and local groups, he said. “Wyoming’s plan is working,” he said, “and any sort of federal mandate that treats all states the same I think is inappropriate.”

Stock growers’ Magagna pointed to three key conservation measures critical to public land grazing interests. One is the separation of Wyoming from other Western states.

“Wyoming was proactive in protecting sage grouse and their habitat,” he said, having instituted the SGIT ahead of federal discussions regarding Endangered Species Act protection, he said. “We would hope [the BLM] would continue that approach.”

Post-grazing stubble height should not come under a West-wide standard, he said. Some areas can’t support cover 6 or 7 inches high “even before grazing,” he said.

Sagebrush focal areas — zones within core habitat that would be off limits to development — also are unnecessary, he said. He wants one designation of critical habitat, Magagna said, not layers.

Safeguards now in place are adequate, he said. But climate change was not a factor that was considered when they were set. It’s emergence as a new element “causes me to be nervous,” he said.The BLM will accept public comments on the scope of topics its review should encompass through Feb. 7, 2022. Comments can be submitted through the agency’s e-planning website.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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