Leading experts on the greater sage grouse warned the Obama administration today that it must take stronger, more scientifically sound steps to protect the imperiled bird and avoid the need to place it on the endangered species list.
The letter from 11 scientists who have studied the sage grouse urged the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to finalize amendments that would add grouse conservation measures to as many as 98 BLM resource management plans (RMPs) and Forest Service land-use plans covering millions of acres of public lands across the sage grouse’s 11-state Western range.
But the scientists cautioned that the 14 draft plans unveiled in late 2013, and the one completed RMP amendment finalized last year in Lander, Wyo., don’t adopt all the necessary sage grouse conservation measures highlighted by the best available science, particularly as it relates to allowable surface disturbance activity in sage grouse habitat.
"This must be fixed in all final BLM RMPs if there is any reasonable hope to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing," they wrote in the letter sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
BLM and the Forest Service are expected to complete the RMP and land-use amendments by this summer.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the letter, but Interior released this statement: "We are in receipt of the biologists’ letter and are looking closely at it. We believe strong protections in the BLM management plans are an important part of successful conservation for the greater sage grouse, and we are working in close collaboration with them to ensure the best outcome for both the bird and the Western landscape it embodies."
The latest letter underscores the urgency to adopt strong conservation measures to protect the greater sage grouse, which Fish and Wildlife officials are evaluating for possible ESA protection.
One of the letter’s primary authors, Jack Connelly, a biologist who worked many years at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, co-edited the book "Greater Sage-Grouse: Ecology and Conservation of a Landscape Species and Its Habitats," which is considered one of the most important works on sage grouse ever published.
"The scientists’ letter affirms that draft federal conservation plans are insufficient to conserve sage grouse," said Mark Salvo, director of federal lands conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "Fortunately, there is still time to improve the final plans to protect and recover the species per the scientists’ recommendations."
Federal, state and local leaders across the West are desperately trying to protect the bird and keep it from being federally listed, fearing that an ESA listing for a bird that occupies an 11-state range would have grave economic impacts, interfering with the region’s energy, livestock and agricultural sectors.
Fish and Wildlife is under a court-mandated deadline to decide whether to propose listing the bird by Sept. 30. And despite a legislation last year attached to the $1.1 trillion spending bill preventing the service from formally listing the sage grouse, Jewell has vowed that FWS will decide by the deadline whether to propose listing it for ESA protection.
The one RMP amendment that BLM has finalized covers thousands of acres in Lander. Conservation groups have heavily criticized the plan, which would establish a buffer of slightly more than a half-mile around active sage grouse leks.
One of the criticisms of the Lander plan is that it does not follow an influential 2011 grouse management report by BLM’s National Technical Team (NTT) of sage grouse experts and an FWS-commissioned report in 2013 by a conservation objectives team (COT) that outlined rangewide sage grouse protection goals.
But in the scientists’ letter to Jewell and Vilsack, they wrote that strictly following the NTT and COT reports isn’t enough to accomplish the goal of keeping the bird from being listed as threatened or endangered.
While the scientists said "many portions of the NTT Report provide a scientific baseline for managing greater sage-grouse habitat using consistent, measurable conservation standards," they noted that "other parts of the report contained questionable statements that are not supported by the best available science."
This includes portions of the NTT report that say prescribed fires can help recover sagebrush steppe that the sage grouse depends on for survival.
"This statement ignores a large body of evidence showing just the opposite," they wrote. "Thus, conservation measures embraced by the current BLM/USFS planning effort must be tightened to account for more robust scientific evidence."
Reports spark disagreement
The NTT and COT reports have been a source of controversy.
Former House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and 17 other GOP House members last year questioned the science behind the NTT and COT reports in a letter to Jewell (Greenwire, Oct. 17, 2014).
They wrote that the reports include studies and research "that have been shown to contain bias, mathematical flaws, misrepresentation of science and data, and erroneous opinion and assumptions," citing testimony from witnesses "at multiple hearings" before the Natural Resources Committee. "This issue is too important to be relying on mere opinion, and deserves to have the best available scientific and commercial data be used in determining the status of the sage grouse and the best way to move forward," they said.
But the scientists wrote in the latest letter to Jewell that the NTT is clear when it comes to issues like limiting man-made disturbance in priority sage grouse habitat. They wrote that they are "particularly concerned" that these are not being followed by BLM and the Forest Service in their proposed sage grouse management plans.
"Sage-grouse are sensitive to habitat disturbance; the best available science recommends capping disturbance (including existing disturbance) at less than 3 percent" in priority habitat areas, they wrote.
They also noted that NTT recommendations should be followed on limiting "mining and minerals management" in sage grouse habitat. "Where fluid minerals development is already permitted, require conditions of approval for existing fluid minerals leases to include a 4-mile no-surface-occupancy lek buffer to protect Sage-grouse breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitat," they wrote, quoting the NTT recommendation.
Moreover, they recommended adopting livestock grazing strategies to keep grass levels at heights that protect the sage grouse and forbidding prescribed burning "in sage-grouse nesting, early brood rearing or winter habitat."
"The proposed alternatives in draft BLM resource management plans and sub-regional environmental impact statements (as well as the one final plan available — for the Lander Field Office) fail to adopt all of these prescriptions, and, instead, identify a series of measures that side-step these objective, measurable conservation protections," the letter said.
The scientists added, "We support the federal planning process and are prepared to assist your Departments in developing measures to conserve and recover greater sage-grouse, but federal planners must commit to science-based planning to achieve this goal."