The greater sage-grouse is a western icon, famous for its courtship ritual, which draws curious crowds every spring to witness the males perform an elaborate strutting display and mating calls . The bird was once ubiquitous in the lower-elevation sagebrush landscape of the western United States and British Columbia. But rampant oil and gas drilling, road development and other causes of habitat fragmentation across our western lands have imperiled the greater sage-grouse and led to significant population declines. So much so that in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared the bird warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the steward of more than half of all remaining sagebrush habitat in the United States (ranging up to 47 million acres by the agency’s own estimates). As the survival of the greater sage-grouse and the entire sagebrush ecosystem are under threat, the BLM should maximize the opportunity and their obligation to protect and improve sage-grouse habitat while also ensuring a healthy greater sagebrush ecosystem.
Although the FWS found that greater sage-grouse warrants protection under the ESA, the agency also determined that listing the bird was precluded due to higher listing priorities at the time. Now, the FWS is preparing to make a new listing decision by 2015. During this time period, the BLM has committed to incorporating objectives and conservation measures into resource management plans with the goal to conserve and rehabilitate greater sage-grouse populations to recovery levels that will avoid an official listing under the ESA – an action that would have enormous impacts on all sorts of development in the western states.
The BLM (along with the U.S. Forest Service) has commenced an effort to evaluate and incorporate conservation measures into land use plans in 10 Western states – affecting millions of acres. The range of activities to be addressed includes transmission, oil and gas leasing, renewable energy development, roads and recreation. BLM has also issued guidance regarding management of a similarly wide range of activities while the environmental impact statements to update land use plans are completed. Taken together, these efforts could make a real difference for the greater sage-grouse and the BLM lands writ large.
BLM’s ongoing initiatives to manage at a landscape scale can support the sage-grouse environmental impact statements by using information from the Rapid Ecological Assessments that are focused on climate change, incorporating proactive management of oil and gas development through master leasing plans and using information already collected on wind potential and environmental sensitivities to identify preferred zones for wind energy development.
The BLM has also requested proposals for designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs); this is the time to not only make ACEC designations, but also to equip such designations with meaningful management prescriptions and provide updated guidance on using this critical tool. BLM should also include a realistic analysis of the effect of climate change on the sagebrush ecosystem, so that effective adaptation strategies are incorporated into the management of a substantial portion of the public lands.
At the same time, the agency has recently issued an instruction memorandum on management of activities in sage-grouse habitat during the preparation of these new EISs. Applying this guidance with an emphasis on conservation and limiting harmful activities is key to ensuring that the management prescriptions in land use plans will be sufficient and have a chance to work.
This is a critical junction in the management of BLM lands – one in which the agency, with the help of scientists, stakeholders and citizens, can chart a path forward for our public lands that conserves the many ecological and wilderness values of the sagebrush sea while promoting strategic development of the resources and recreation that our communities rely on.