Federal sage grouse plans are a faltering step forward

The federal planning effort to protect the sage grouse started out with good ideas and sound science. Somewhere along the way, the goal shifted. Science-based solutions were out, and appeasing pro-industry Western governors was in. At the end of the day, instead of strong and science-based conservation measures protecting their most important habitats, sage grouse get protections riddled with loopholes over a much-reduced geography of protected areas.

The new sage grouse plans are an improvement over the virtual absence of sage grouse protections that came before but nowhere near adequate to prevent the disappearance of this iconic bird or restore the health of the beleaguered Sagebrush Sea.

Sadly, the administration blew a golden opportunity. These plans should have provided real, science-based solutions that put sage grouse on the road to recovery, satisfied the public interest in protecting sage grouse and ecosystems that support hundreds of species of western wildlife, and at the same time provided legally defensible conservation measures that are both certain and effective.

Instead, the new plans hedge on protections and thus allows commercial interests—the oil and gas, coal, utilities and livestock industries—to march onward from sage grouse habitats they have already destroyed and into the last remaining sage grouse strongholds.

Under the new plans, sage grouse face daunting realities.

The threat of drilling is greatest in Wyoming, where more than 40 percent of the remaining birds reside. But oil and gas restrictions are far weaker in Wyoming than for any other state, allowing levels of destruction known to cause sage grouse declines. And Wyoming priority habitats will remain open to future oil and gas leasing with minimal restrictions, while other states at least shift surface activity away from key habitats.

The various sage grouse protections across all states are subject to exceptions or waivers. So when industrial proposals come forward inside the most sensitive grouse habitats, federal officials can caucus with state officials to give harmful projects a free pass on protecting grouse habitat. Notably, local officials in the West have a consistent track record of granting these exemptions upon request.

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The new plans entirely exempt major transmission lines from sage grouse habitat protections. The science shows that grouse avoid habitats near power lines, and that power lines concentrate the activity of eagles and ravens that prey on grouse. Proper siting is the key to minimizing power line impacts, but the new grouse plans make certain that utilities won't have to shift their lines to avoid even the most sensitive grouse habitats.

The new plans include targets for livestock grazing to leave behind enough grass—7 inches tall—to provide adequate hiding cover for sage grouse. But these targets won't be applied until grazing permits are renewed. Since permits have 10-year terms, it could take years for changes to take effect. And thanks to the Grazing Improvement Act tacked on to the defense spending bill in 2013, when federal agencies are short on money or personnel to issue new grazing permits, permits are automatically renewed for another decade under the same old terms.

The plans also deny Priority Habitat Management Area protections for 16 million acres of priority habitats deemed "essential for sage-grouse conservation" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Now the American public is being treated to a media circus. Some may try to spin the plans as an unqualified conservation victory. Some will complain that the plans go too far in protecting wildlife. And the conservation groups who fought the hardest to recover the sage grouse will find little satisfaction in the half-measures and weasel-words that hamstring the federal grouse plans.

Meanwhile, an avalanche of industrial projects and oil and gas leasing, put on hold while federal agencies developed sage grouse plans, starts moving forward again. They'll be approved under the terms of the new grouse plans, which are too weak.

America was promised a new day where science and sound management guides federal decisions. Instead, we're getting politics as usual. It's disappointing to have sage grouse plans that aren't even good enough to meet the minimum standards of sage grouse protection. This outcome guarantees that the battle over sage grouse conservation will move into the courts.

Soon the "political realities" that threw a wrench into sage grouse conservation will come face-to-face with legal and scientific realities. When a native wildlife reaches the brink of extinction, half-measures are no longer good enough for government work. The sage grouse's best hope to finally get adequate habitat protections, it would seem, will come when this magnificent bird gets its day in court.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist directing the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.

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