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Much to Grouse About: Interior Department Calls for Changes That Could Threaten Sage Grouse Protection

Science
Sage grouse fight over territory on the lek during a spring mating season at Mill Creek Ranch in Gunnison, CO. Noppadol Paothong Photography

By Charise Johnson

That the current administration places very little value on the merit of robust scientific evidence when considering its actions (or inactions) is no longer shocking, but it remains an intolerable practice.

In this week's episode of "How is the Trump Administration Dismantling Science-Based Protections?" we visit the Interior Department's decision to formally reconsider a widely heralded Obama-era agreement for protections of the greater sage grouse in the West.


On Thursday, the Interior Department published a formal notice of intent to rework 98 sage grouse management plans across the quirky bird's 11 state range. This change comes after a mere 60 days deliberation by the Interior Department's internal Sage-Grouse Review Team (appointed by Sec. Ryan Zinke) and Sage-Grouse Task Force (representatives of governors of the eleven western states)—and much to the chagrin of the many stakeholders who worked for several years to craft a cooperative land use agreement in an effort to protect the sage grouse and its habitat.

What's the deal with the sage grouse?

The sage grouse is the chicken of the "Sagebrush Sea"—an ecosystem which is "suffering death by a thousand cuts," as former Sec. of Interior Sally Jewell put it. Habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and wildfires in the sagebrush have all contributed to the decline of this magnificent bird.

Importantly, Sec. Jewell worked to put in place federal-state partnerships in order to protect the sage grouse. In 2010, the FWS proposed listing the sage grouse under Endangered Species because of the threats its survival faced. After much input from stakeholders and the public, the agency in 2015 chose not to list the species and instead put efforts into state management plans, assuring us all that states could put programs in place to ensure the bird's protection. With Sec. Zinke's moves, we're now paving over (perhaps literally) those state protection plans, leaving the sage grouse at least as vulnerable as it was when the FWS proposed listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

The sage grouse has long been caught in the crosshairs of political controversy, especially when it comes to undermining the science behind conservation efforts. For example, in 2004, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), altered scientific content in a report examining the vulnerability of the greater sage grouse, which was subsequently presented to a panel of experts that recommended against listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (read my colleagues' thoughts on political interference in sage grouse conservation efforts here and here).

Ignoring the science

The Sage-Grouse Review Team (SGRT) recommendations include potentially removing or modifying the boundaries of critical habitat called sagebrush focal areas (SFAs), as well as setting population targets and captive breeding, and modifying or issuing new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development. Also worth noting is that an Obama-era moratorium on mining claims in six Western states recently expired, with no indication of renewal from Sec. Zinke.

The problem with the Interior changing the conservation plans is twofold: 1) the motivation for reviewing the sage grouse management plans was to "ease the burden on local economies" by opening protected lands to development, which could have negative impacts on already rapidly-dwindling sage grouse populations, and 2) reopening the plans could spell more trouble for recovery efforts and potentially force FWS to list the sage grouse under the ESA in the future, which is precisely what states wanted to avoid. The conservation plan is critical, but it only works with the agreed upon protections in place.

The decision to undo years of collaboration and compromise between federal, state, local, and tribal governments, NGO's, scientists, industry, landowners, ranchers and hunters in a matter of two months sends a loud message to the public that economic considerations prevail over scientific evidence, even at the cost of an entire ecosystem and the species dependent upon it.

The SGRT recommendations ignore the science and put the entire sagebrush landscape at risk, much to the detriment of the sage grouse. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead is critical of the new plan, concerned that it ignores scientific consensus. "We've got to have good science lead the way, and that trumps politics," Mead said. "Let's look at what the states have done, and what biologists, folks who know this, are telling us."

Sage advice

We cannot allow our government to irresponsibly cater to oil and gas industry at the expense of our wildlife and public lands. Instead, we must urge the Department of Interior to focus their efforts on collaborative, science-informed management of the sage grouse and its habitat.

Charise Johnson is a research associate in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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