States to Have More Say on Sage Grouse Conservation

DOI decision potentially opens up sagebrush habitat to economic development

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

By Mark Carter

Western states will receive more flexibility to determine the level of economic development allowed on sagebrush habitat under a new U.S. Department of Interior plan announced this week.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opened the door to allowing states more power to pursue economic development on sagebrush habitat while remaining focused on sage-grouse conservation and keeping the iconic Western bird, a favorite of hunters, off the endangered species list.

Sage-grouse conservation has been under particular scrutiny since 2015 when the Obama administration enacted a plan that many Western ranchers and even some governors believed placed too many restrictions on ranching and industry.

Meanwhile, hunters and outdoors groups advocated for increased conservation efforts and railed against any policy that might open up the West's remaining sagebrush habitat, already depleted, to ecomomic development.

The full order is available here, and it reflects the findings of DOI's Sage-Grouse Review Team, charged in June with reviewing sage-grouse conservation practices

The order directs the Bureau of Land Management to allow sage-grouse states to set their own sage-grouse population objectives. Those states are California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana. North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Under the 2015 plan, land-management policies were the instrument through which DOI sought to keep the bird off the endangered species list.

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A poll commissioned by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers found that a majority of Western stakeholders strongly supported the 2015 sage-grouse conversation plan. Conducted in the sage-grouse states of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho, it revealed that 56 percent of hunters and sportsmen polled supported then-current conservation plans that protect the sagebrush landscape. The findings were released last week.

“A healthy sagebrush landscape is the bedrock of robust fish and game populations, continued hunting and fishing opportunities, and countless small-town economies,” said BHA Conservation Director John Gale. “Our poll confirms strong and bipartisan support for conservation plans currently in place, especially among hunters and sportsmen.”

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The switch to the population-objective model is opposed as well by Govs. Matt Mead (R) of Wyoming and John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado, who co-chaired a federal-state task force that helped develop the 2015 plan.

The sage grouse's historic range has been shrinking for decades. Currently, it's estimated to be around 257 million acres across as many as 11 Western states. And sage grouse numbers are estimated at roughly half a million, down from 16 million a century ago.

Many hunters believe the new approach potentially reduces the bird's habitat even further.

Backcountry commissioned a study, released in June, that found only a small portion of sagebrush habitat was suitable for energy development, which some states would like to pursue. Still, the Trump administration's approach has been to afford states more say in what happens on their land.

From the DOI's official statement announcing Zinke's order:

Secretarial Order 3353 aims to improve sage-grouse conservation and to strengthen communication and collaboration between states and the federal government. Together, the federal government and the states are working to conserve and protect sage-grouse and their habitat while also ensuring conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities.