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Zinke aims for new low: rolling back collaborative Sage Grouse Plan

In this 2008 file photo, a male sage grouse performs his “strut” near Rawlins, Wyo. (Jerret Raffety / Associated Press)
In this 2008 file photo, a male sage grouse performs his “strut” near Rawlins, Wyo. (Jerret Raffety / Associated Press)

PUBLIC LANDS -- In an apparent effort to open more federal public lands to oil and gas development, mining and grazing, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly is considering a rollback of the Sage Grouse Management Plan that was hammered out by a wide range of stakeholers over a decade of discussions before being adopted in 2015.

The effort kept the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from moving ahead to list sage grouse as endangered species.

A rollback would be the most troubling of the public lands decisions the Trump administration has made this year because it would trash the work, collaboration, science and compromise of so many factions, from conservation groups to extractive industry representatives.  It's disheartening to those involved and dangerous to the existence of the quirky sage grouse that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands across harsh, dry sagebrush habitats.

The New York Times reports today that Interior intends this week to publish a formal notice of intent to amend 98 sage grouse habitat management plans across 10 states, according to multiple agency and state officials who have been briefed on the effort.

Washington state isn’t part of the plan, but neighboring Idaho, Oregon and Montana are.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers has posted a concise comment on the news of a rollback.   A poll released last month by BHA demonstrates bipartisan support for existing sage grouse management plans.

The Nature Conservancy has summarized studied insight and background to the ramifications of a rollback in this statement released today from Mark R. Tercek, president and CEO, in Arlington, Virginia:

“Fully re-opening the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Greater Sage-grouse plans would reverse years of progress for not just the sage-grouse, but for sagebrush lands across much the west which are also home to a vast array of other species such as mule deer and pronghorn. Those plans were the result of years of hard work between a broad collaboration of stakeholders, including the federal government, ranchers, governors, conservationists, local officials and industry leaders.

“Just as puzzling, this action would contradict the recommendations in the Department of the Interior’s Sage-Grouse Review Team Report from August, which acknowledged that most of the affected states want to retain the existing BLM plans. The report also stated that the Department should first consider policy changes and clarifications to better manage the species before moving to re-open the sage-grouse plans.

“A broad re-opening of these plans would squarely violate the process set out in the Review Team Report, which calls for further state collaboration and opportunities for public input to refine the options available and develop a plan for prioritized implementation before taking any action.

“The Nature Conservancy supports the existing BLM plans. While we have important reservations about a number of the recommendations in the Review Team report, if changes are to be made, they should, as the Review Team provided, be specifically targeted and considered only after all sectors of the public have had the chance to weigh in. We urge Secretary Zinke to take a step back and let the process his own Review Team designed move ahead.”


1.  As an organization, The Nature Conservancy has over 60 years of experience working with private landowners, federal, state, local, and tribal governments across the nation. Stabilizing and increasing populations of the Greater Sage-grouse across its range is a priority for the Conservancy. Our work on the sage-grouse across the West has been designed to use our scientific expertise to inform sage-grouse planning, and to provide our hands-on habitat protection and restoration expertise working directly with public and private landowners.

2. The sage-grouse is an iconic part of the American West, key to the vitality of the sagebrush plains. Healthy sagebrush steppe habitats benefit more than 350 sagebrush-associated plants and animals of conservation concern as well as important game species such as elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Despite a population that was once estimated to number 16 million, today, sage-grouse numbers have dwindled to 200,000 to 500,000 birds range-wide.

3. People also benefit from healthy sagebrush habitat. There is a saying in ranching communities that, “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”  For example, efforts to prevent uncharacteristically severe fires protect forage for livestock.

4. Because sage-grouse habitat crosses all ownership jurisdictions in 11 states, federal and state management plans are both important for addressing threats to the species. No one state or federal agency can by itself conserve the sage-grouse. States have primary management authority for wildlife within their borders. However, federal land comprises almost 2/3 of sage-grouse habitat in the West, and it is therefore critical that both federal and state partners proactively and collaboratively take conservation actions.

5. The 2015 BLM sage-grouse plans were an important tool in averting a listing of sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They were the product of an unprecedented level of work that involved a vast array of stakeholders, including federal, state and local governments, tribes, ranchers, conservationists, and industry.

6. States have been important partners in the development of the federal land management plans, and continue to play a critical role is sage-grouse conservation. The federal plans build upon concepts initiated by a number of states, including Wyoming and Montana’s core area strategy, and Oregon’s “all lands, all threats” approach.

7. These plans represent a new model for imperiled species: working together to design and implement conservation actions for species before they warrant listing under the ESA. Protecting and recovering species before they are listed under the ESA provides greater flexibility and allows state and federal agencies to put measures in place to help private landowners and development interests.

8. The sage-grouse plans apply well-documented, interdisciplinary science and provide a cohesive strategy for addressing threats across sagebrush habitat. The science behind the BLM plans is sound. This is one of the most exhaustively researched species in the history of the U.S. No other individual species has generated more research in the past five years, from academics to government.

9. The Nature Conservancy stands ready to work with the Department, and all stakeholders, on implementing the sage-grouse plans, and, where appropriate, to first consider policy changes and, then if necessary, targeted revisions to the plans, that are science-based and lead to improvements in the implementation of the plans. The Nature Conservancy believes we will realize the best results – for people and nature – when we tackle difficult challenges together.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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