Gunnison sage-grouse, © Noppadol Paothong

The Fate of Greater Sage-grouse is in Our Hands

Fossil fuel development, livestock grazing, transmission corridors, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, invasive species, climate change — these are just a few of the 26 threats facing the greater sage-grouse, an iconic bird in the American west. The species population has suffered steep declines over the last decade. Without strong conservation efforts, the future of the bird is bleak.

So bleak in fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined as recently as 2010 that the sage-grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, although listing was precluded at the time by other, higher priorities. The Service found that current threats — and particularly the federal government’s failure to address them — could lead to the species extinction.

The federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service got the message. In 2011, the federal government launched the National Greater Sage-grouse Planning Strategy, an ambitious effort to improve management of more than 60 million acres of sagebrush habitat on public lands with one goal: to conserve and recover the sage-grouse. It is a massive undertaking and the Obama administration deserves a lot of credit for initiating the strategy and devoting so many resources to protecting a quintessential part of our natural heritage.

sage-grouse, © Margaret Sloan

Addressing the multitude of threats to sage-grouse is a challenge. But we have the advantage of knowing what needs to be done, what standards need to be applied. The BLM and other federal agencies developed those standards themselves. And scientists affirmed the importance of adopting these conservation measures to Secretary of the Interior Jewell just this past spring.

Unfortunately, the current proposed plans before the Obama administration fall short of these agreed-upon standards. The plans recognize the importance of conserving large expanses of sagebrush grasslands for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, but many management prescriptions fail to adequately address the most important threats to the grouse and its habitat.

For instance, many of the proposed plans would merely reduce harm to sage-grouse rather than increase protection for the species. Many plans are also missing protections for key habitats, including nesting areas and winter habitat. And none of the plans designate and protect sagebrush reserves to ensure the long-term security for sage-grouse and other wildlife, or address the impacts of climate change on the bird and its habitat.

There are also marked inconsistencies in the federal planning process. Plans in Wyoming–home to 37 percent of remaining sage-grouse — adopt an entirely different set of standards than other plans that are less protective of important seasonal habitats, and allow excessively high levels of disturbance in core areas that are critical to the species’ survival.

Sage-Grouse on Lek, © Diana LeVasseur

Unless the federal plans are improved, the Fish and Wildlife Service may have little choice but to propose sage-grouse for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

So it’s a simple question: will federal plans for conserving sage-grouse include federal, science-based standards for conserving the species, the same ones they themselves developed?

As a scientist and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, I was routinely confronted with this question. In reviewing the final sage-grouse plans, I will ask the same question again. If the answer is yes, then we’re in business; if no, then we’re not likely to achieve our goal of conserving sage-grouse.

Fortunately, the administration still has time to strengthen sage-grouse conservation measures in the final plans. The sage-grouse planning process is an unprecedented opportunity to protect sage-grouse and forge a new course for managing imperiled species on public lands. I look forward to working with the administration to make sure we get this right.

Originally published on Huff Post Green