At the U.S. Department of the Interior, the management of our public lands has fallen prey to willful ignorance of science. Nowhere is this more obvious than the government’s dismantling of the 2015 sage grouse conservation plans.
Known for their striking appearance and flamboyant mating dance, the greater sage grouse has dramatically declined in numbers over the last half century. Wildfire, invasive species, industrial development and other stressors to the species’ habitats have reduced the population from historical estimates as high as 16 million to fewer than roughly 425,000 breeding individuals.
Like the canary in the coal mine that signals danger, a declining sage grouse population alerts us to the potential demise of the entire sagebrush steppe in America’s West. The bird serves as an indicator species — a barometer of health for the sagebrush ecosystem relied upon by hundreds of other species and human communities throughout the region.
It took a colossal amount of collaboration to develop the original sage grouse and sagebrush habitat conservation plans. Over many years, at the behest of both Republican and Democratic governors, ranchers, business owners, land and wildlife managers, conservationists and scientists hammered out a consensus to create state and federal plans establishing protections on 67 million acres of greater sage grouse habitat.
The plans were not perfect. When you gather a group of stakeholders as large and diverse as this, compromise is imperative. However, the plans were developed considering the best available science with stakeholders relying on a “preponderance of evidence” to support management decisions with the near-term goal of stabilizing populations by conserving key habitats throughout the sage grouse range.
Sage grouse depend on large, connected patches of sagebrush habitat for survival. Studying sage grouse in western Wyoming, I have followed individuals into areas as diverse as high elevation sagebrush stands in the Wind River Mountains to incredibly remote areas in the middle of the Red Desert. These birds regularly travel long distances; in fact, a sage grouse captured in Canada was recently documented traveling more than 90 miles into Montana to find an area where it could survive the winter, returning to her same breeding ground the following spring.
Decades of scientific research show that land management decisions that disrupt connectivity between important sage grouse habitats can have dire consequences for wide-ranging populations. This establishes a situation where decisions made at local levels can have consequences that extend far beyond the decision area itself.
The 2015 plans recognized the need for range-wide consistency. They were meant to complement state-based approaches by incorporating many of the specifics established in the localized plans, while considering larger-scale dynamics and cross-jurisdictional boundary issues. The result melded state-based approaches into range-wide management that kept the bird off the Endangered Species list.
Unfortunately, in July of 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke decided to amend the 2015 plans and dismantle many of the consensus-based agreements for landscape-scale protections they established.
By relying almost solely on state-level strategies to manage sage grouse, as the amendments finalized this week will do, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fails at its duty to consider the consequences of actions at larger spatial scales than those that states should have to worry about.
The Interior Department’s actions are an insult to the hard work we in Wyoming have invested in sage grouse. They put not only the future of our wildlife in jeopardy, but also jeopardize the jobs of thousands of hardworking Americans in the energy, ranching, mining and recreation industries.
Former Wyoming Governor Mead trusted the science behind the plans and led by example, creating an unprecedented partnership with state and federal stakeholders. Now, Wyoming needs Governor Gordon to continue to be a strong voice for federal plans that safeguard sage grouse throughout their range.
Dismantling the 2015 plans may drive the sage grouse toward a listing under the Endangered Species Act, the very outcome we created the plans to prevent. As the state with the most sage grouse, Wyoming would bear the brunt of a possible Endangered Species Act listing — a concern that was diminished due to the complementary nature of the state’s plan and the original federal plans.
Keeping the bird off the list in this era of dismantled federal plans means states will need to take a more active role in managing across jurisdictional boundaries, including a major and explicit commitment to collaboration. And we’ll be doing that in Wyoming while missing a primary partner — the BLM.
Ample scientific research shows that we need more than state-level efforts; we need plans that address the critical life-history requirements of sage grouse at multi-state and range-wide levels.
It’s time for the administration to stop basing their public lands management on the energy industry’s desires. It’s time to listen to the science and invest in major multi-state collaboration. Wyoming will be leading the way.