(Washington, D.C., August 18, 2014) Six conservation organizations today released a detailed scorecard for grading the Obama administration on following federal scientists' recommendations for conserving Greater Sage-Grouse across more than 60 million acres of public land in the American West. The groups also sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging them to follow specific measures for protecting these imperiled birds as they approve a series of upcoming federal land “management plans” from the Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service.
“Federal scientists have identified very specific steps for protecting greater sage grouse from development in the West, including restraining oil and gas exploitation. The question now is whether the Obama administration will follow those steps,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We'll be holding the BLM accountable and making sure that the best available science is followed to protect these iconic birds of the West.”
The first-completed 32-point scorecard, released today, finds that the final federal plan released in June by the BLM's Lander, Wyo., field office fails to follow federal experts' recommendations for Greater Sage-Grouse. The Lander management plan fails to meet 24 specific management recommendations for sage-grouse.
Endorsed by 27 conservation organizations across the country, the scorecard is based on the Interior and Agriculture departments' own expert recommendations made in the Greater Sage-Grouse National Technical Team report of 2011, including what the team calls the “best available science of protecting and enhancing Greater Sage-Grouse populations and habitat.”
“The Lander plan utterly fails to do what's needed to stem the decline of sage-grouse in this part of Wyoming, making it more likely that these birds will require the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” said Travis Bruner, executive director for Western Watersheds Project.
Greater Sage-Grouse were proposed for federal protection in 2010 due to steep population declines in the face of rampant drilling, mining, grazing, plowing, development, and associated road construction. A final listing determination was delayed, but a new decision for the imperiled bird is due in 2015.
“The science is abundantly clear about what is needed to stop the decline of sage grouse and recover this iconic species,” said Erik Molvar, Sagebrush Sea Campaign director for WildEarth Guardians. “The government need only find the political will to follow that clear roadmap and put in place adequate protections. If the BLM and the Forest Service do so over the coming months, an Endangered Species Act listing may prove unnecessary.”
“The BLM has an important opportunity right now to put in place badly needed protections to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse and its habitat,” said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for American Bird Conservancy. “Unless the agency changes course and starts following the best available science, we are headed for continuing controversy as a result of ineffective management plans, and declining grouse populations.”
As many as 16 million Greater Sage-Grouse once ranged across 297 million acres of sagebrush grasslands in the western United States. Over the last two centuries, however, development, livestock grazing and—more recently—oil and gas drilling have reduced sage grouse populations to just several hundred thousand birds. In the face of ongoing habitat destruction and other threats, the species' population continues to steadily decline.
Sagebrush steppe is one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America due to oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads, and fragmentation. Yet only three percent of the sagebrush ecosystem is protected by strong conservation designations. Protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse also means helping to protect more than 300 other sensitive species—including pronghorn and pygmy rabbits—and the great open spaces of the West.
In 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will decide whether to protect the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. This pending deadline prompted federal agencies to initiate the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, an effort to update land-use plans with new measures to conserve sage grouse and potentially preclude the need to list the species. A final decision on a listing proposal would be due within 12 months of the 2015 listing recommendation.
The BLM is responsible for half of the remaining greater sage grouse habitat and is working with the Forest Service on an unprecedented effort to improve management of more than 60 million acres of publicly owned sagebrush grasslands in the West.
The BLM divided Greater Sage-Grouse range into 15 planning areas across 11 western states. Final resource management plans for each area are expected to be released over the next few months.
Unlike with many imperiled species, the best available science in this case outlines clear habitat requirements and brood-rearing seasonal protections necessary to recover sage grouse. Federal and government agencies need only follow these clear recommendations.
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