Greens Decry Lifting Protection of Sage Grouse

WASHINGTON (CN) – Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Wednesday that “the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history” means the greater sage-grouse does not need endangered listing protection, sparking a firestorm of dissent from environmental groups.
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the iconic birds warranted Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection in 2010 due to the loss of millions of acres of ‘sagebrush sea’ habitat critical to the birds’ survival. What remains of the habitat is fragmented by roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors, and further impacted by oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, and invasive grass species that have led to a proliferation of wildfires.
     Facing a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for finalizing the ESA listing, multiple federal agencies, 11 states, and dozens of public and private partners came together to form a coalition to protect and restore the habitat to preclude the need to list the species. The thrust of the conservation effort focuses on new management direction for public lands and voluntary private land efforts to protect millions of acres.
     “[The] decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the announcement. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities. Through the comprehensive initiatives on both public and private lands, the partnership has made and will continue to make monumental strides in supporting the people and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush landscape.”
     While supporters laud the coalition’s effort as “unprecedented,” “historic,” and an “extraordinary collaboration,” environmental groups see the move as a failure that falls short of what the birds need to survive.
     “If greater sage grouse in the West are going to survive and thrive, we should be following the recommendations of the federal government’s own scientists. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened on a large enough scale with this decision,” Randi Spivak with the Center for Biological Diversity said. “There’s no question that the Obama administration put an enormous amount of work into this process and it deserves credit for that. But in the end this decision seems more based on political science than biological science.”
     The WildEarth Guardians’ response to the announcement listed four “crippling flaws” to the federal plan, including the stripping of 16 million acres of priority areas from the federal plan, the reopening of priority areas to oil and gas drilling, with the weakest protections in Wyoming, which contains 40 percent of the birds’ habitat, and the options for exceptions and waivers, “loopholes that have been abused in the past to the detriment of sage grouse.”
     “In the final sage grouse plans, the Obama administration threw science out the window in favor of political expediency,” Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said. “Strong, science-based plans could have neutralized the serious threats that sage grouse are facing, but instead we have weak plans that cannot justify the decision to deny Endangered Species Act protections.”
     The Fish and Wildlife Service admits that the fate of the grouse depends on “successful implementation” of the federal and state plans, as well as the on the actions of private landowners, and efforts to reduce invasive grasses that contribute to wildfires, and says it is committed to ongoing monitoring and reevaluation. The agency said it anticipates that some populations may decline as the plans take effect, but expects that the measures will eventually stabilize the loss of habitat.”While the final federal sage-grouse plans advance wildlife management on millions of acres of public lands, they failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat. Listing decisions under the ESA must be based upon the best available science and specific listing criteria, including the adequacy of regulatory mechanisms to address ongoing threats and support long-term conservation and recovery of imperiled species. In this case, the shortcomings of the federal sage-grouse conservation plans and a lack of regulatory certainty are contrary to and undermine the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the species no longer warrants protection under the ESA,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife said.

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