Protecting sage grouse is target of new federal, state rules

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell revealed plans to preserve habitat in Idaho and 10 other Western states for an imperiled ground-dwelling bird, the federal government’s biggest effort to date for conservation of a single species.

The proposal announced Thursday formalizes the aims outlined by state and federal officials in recent months, including regulations on locating oil and gas wells and power lines to avoid disrupting habitat for the greater sage grouse.

The chicken-sized birds are found from California to the Dakotas, but their numbers have declined sharply in recent decades. Some warn they’re at risk of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30 to decide whether the greater sage grouse needs protection as a threatened or endangered species.

Under the plan, the BLM, which controls millions of acres of public lands with the Forest Service, will regulate miners, energy developers and ranchers who hold federal leases to work in sagebrush habitat more closely to ensure the survival of the bird.

The plan seeks to reduce fragmentation by lowering noise and other disturbances from development. In some places it will put a 3-mile buffer around leks, a flat area where male sage grouse strut to attract and mate with hens.

BLM and the Forest Service will continue to develop partnerships with ranchers, state officials, local government officials and nonprofit groups to manage and restore the bird’s habitat under the plan, removing trees used by birds of prey and planting sagebrush for nesting and shelter. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed an order Wednesday implementing the Idaho plan that his aides developed in concert with the BLM.

Finally, the private and public partnerships will work to lower the threat of range fires that destroy sagebrush, especially in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.

The bureau’s updated plan, three years in the making, replaces one that critics say allowed energy and cattle operations to nearly wipe out sage grouse. “The updated plans are an essential element of a ... strategy to respond to the deteriorating health of the American West’s sagebrush ... and declining population of the greater sage grouse,” according to a statement by the Interior Department.

“The West is rapidly changing,” said Jewell, who traveled to Wyoming for the announcement. “As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving Western economy.”

Conservation groups called the plan historic. Nada Culver of the Wilderness Society called it “impressive and ... inspiring.”

The federal action is now undergoing a 60-day review period.

President Rhea Suh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the plan “is a huge step in the right direction.”

Energy interests, including the Western Energy Alliance, pushed back against the plan.

“Conservation of the sage grouse is a goal shared by the oil and natural gas industry, ranchers, other industries, states and communities across the West,” said vice president of government and public affairs Kathleen Sgamma said. “That goal is best achieved at the state level, not with a one-size-fits-all federal approach.”

Doug Thompson, a rancher and county commissioner in Fremont, Wyo., welcomed the plan. “We recognize the benefits of properly managed grazing to the sage grouse and healthy working landscapes,” he said.

Jewell chose Wyoming because it has more sage grouse than any state. Over six decades, sage grouse habitat was overrun by cattle grazing, housing and business development, and natural resource harvesting operations, mostly on federal land managed by the bureau.

Two factors motivated Wyoming and Idaho state officials and ranchers to save their population of sage grouse: They are intensely opposed to a potential federal endangered listing that would lead to Fish and Wildlife oversight on some land management, and they are genuinely interested in the survival of an animal that was a feature on the state’s landscape long before it existed.

“Federal and state governments and private landowners recognize that a healthy sagebrush landscape means a healthy Western economy,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service. “We are working with local partners to design innovative, long-term conservation plans. Together we can put effective conservation measures in place that not only benefit the greater sage grouse, but also preserve the Western way of life, help improve grazing lands and bolster rural economies.”