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Conservationists slam federal proposal for greater sage-grouse protection

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says its proposed draft plan will strengthen greater sage-grouse protections using the best available science. Advocates for the imperiled bird say it isn't enough.

(CN) — Criticism of federal protections for the greater sage-grouse spilled over Thursday after the Biden administration revealed a new draft plan that it claims will strengthen the declining species’ conservation and habitat management on U.S. public lands.

The announcement from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes an amendment to a 2015 land-use plan that enforced regulations for conserving greater sage-grouse instead of protecting the bird species under the Endangered Species Act.

The 2015 plan — along with the Trump administration’s subsequent amendments that weakened sage-grouse habitat protections to allow more industrial development without public input — has failed to stop the bird species’ decline. That’s despite federal courts blocking the Trump amendments in 2018 and some of its oil industry leases in 2022, the latter of which is still subject to extensive litigation in Idaho and Montana.

In 2020, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the number of sage-grouse had dropped 80.7% across 11 U.S. states since 1965, with half of the decline occurring after 2002. Another study from the agency in 2022 found that 1.3 million acres of the bird’s sagebrush habitat disappear every year.

To address the bird’s declining habitat and numbers — now reported below 800,000 — the bureau’s new draft plan offers six alternative amendments for managing 77 land-use plans across 69 million acres in 10 states. Similar to its actions in 2015 and 2018, the agency claims its new provisions benefit greater sage-grouse by using decades of the best available science and input from governmental and tribal partners.

“The majesty of the west and its way of life are at stake,” said bureau director Tracy Stone-Manning in a statement. “Sagebrush lands are places where people work and play, and they are the headwaters for the West’s major rivers. Joint efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse and its habitat led to the largest collaborative conservation effort in our history, and we are building on that work, together with our partners, to ensure the health of these lands and local economies into the future.”

However, conservation groups claim the agency’s preferred option — the fifth alternative — falls short of necessary protections.

“Stronger plans are needed to provide the grouse with a better chance of survival,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy in a statement with the Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and Advocates of the West.

Holmer explained that designating areas of critical environmental concern could protect some habitats, but that the preferred alternative falls short of designating them “and will do little to improve recovery of the sage grouse, or to make a meaningful contribution to fighting climate change.”

Others say the preferred alternative weakens existing regulations that were already inadequate.

“Regrettably, the existing plans have not been enough to recover greater sage-grouse,” said Advocates of the West attorney Sarah Stellberg in a statement. Stellberg represented conservation groups for two federal challenges to the bureau’s previous conservation plans in Idaho.  

“The draft proposal just doesn’t cut it for the sage-grouse,” said Defenders of Wildlife policy analyst Vera Smith in a separate statement. “The draft proposal still allows for oil and gas drilling, mining and other activities — some of the biggest threats to the bird’s habitat. We need a drastic departure from the BLM’s approach of whittling away at the last best places for the sage-grouse.”

The bureau’s other proposed actions include a no-action alternative, and some include 11 million acres for areas of critical environmental concern. The agency said its draft environmental impact statement and plan amendments will open for public comment on Friday and that it will hold 13 public meetings on its draft alternatives. It expects to release its final environmental impact statement this fall.

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Categories / Environment, Government

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