ST. GEORGE — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that the greater sage-grouse does not need to be listed as an endangered or threatened species and determined federal land management plans and partnerships with states, ranchers and nongovernmental organizations have averted the need to list the bird by conserving the “Sagebrush Sea.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the premier wildlife agency in the world, has concluded that the greater sage-grouse does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a press conference Tuesday.
Besides a brighter future for the sage-grouse, Jewell said, the announcement means more certainty for states, communities, ranchers and developers who want to know where they can develop without compromising the health of the sagebrush landscape. The Interior Department issued this statement, in part:
An unprecedented, landscape-scale conservation effort across the western United States has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90 percent of the specie’s breeding habitat and enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the charismatic rangeland bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This collaborative, science-based greater sage-grouse strategy is the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.
Jewell called the announcement “the end of the beginning” because there is a lot left to learn about the sage-grouse and maintaining the health of the West’s sagebrush landscape.
“This is the largest, most complex land conservation … effort ever in the history of the United States of America, perhaps the world,” Jewell said.
Across the West, multiple partners came together to determine the best way to protect the sage-grouse while preserving the economy across the 11 states and 170 million acres that encompass the bird’s habitat.
Federal land use plans
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service also announced Tuesday they have issued records of decisions finalizing 98 land use plans that will help conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development on portions of public lands in 10 states across the West.
State and local plans for sage-grouse conservation were rejected, however – a move that has angered Utah politicians and mining groups (see below).
The federal land use plans were developed over a multiyear process in partnership with the states and local partners, guided by the best available science and technical advice, according to the Interior Department.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sept. 30 deadline to review the status of the species spurred numerous federal agencies, the 11 states in the range and dozens of public and private partners to undertake an extraordinary campaign to protect, restore and enhance important sage-grouse habitat to preclude the need to list the species.
Four Western governors support efforts; Herbert opposes
Four Western governors spoke at the press conference in support of the decision and the collaborative efforts by many state, local, federal and private entities involved in the conservation effort, which prevented listing of the sage-grouse as endangered: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
However, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert disagrees with the rejection of the state’s conservation plan and the implementation of land use amendments. Herbert released this statement today in response to the announcement:
I am deeply concerned with the decisions of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, which constitute a significant overreach by the federal government on this issue. The state of Utah has implemented a successful sage-grouse conservation plan that has been rejected by the federal government, jeopardizing conservation of the species and reasonable economic growth in Utah.
Today’s actions constitute the equivalent of a listing decision outside the normal process and fail to support an appropriate balance between conservation and other public uses of the land. The state is not satisfied with the Records of Decision on land use plan amendments as issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Their one-size-fits-all approach does not reflect the tremendous diversity in greater sage-grouse habitats across the West. These federal land use plan amendments are unnecessarily restrictive in nature and devalue Utah’s management plan and the conservation commitments from private landowners.
I have always believed that, as a state, Utah is better positioned to manage our sage-grouse population than the federal government. Utah has in fact adopted a strong conservation plan designed to protect, enhance and restore sage-grouse habitats throughout the state. This effort by Utah has resulted in the restoration of more than 500,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat and a significant growth in sage-grouse populations. We will continue to work with the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to accept the State of Utah’s conservation plan. We will also pursue legislative and potential judicial relief to protect the state’s interests and ensure conservation of the species.
Rep. Chris Stewart released a statement in response to the announcement that the greater sage-grouse would not be listed as a threatened or endangered species:
While the Interior Department’s decision not to list the sage grouse is a small step in the right direction, I remain fearful that the Federal land use plans will be just as onerous as an ESA listing. I am fully confident that states are more motivated and better suited than the federal government to maintain healthy sage grouse populations. The fact that Fish and Wildlife has deemed a listing not necessary shows that the western states efforts at conservation have worked. The states have been successful at protecting the sage grouse while maintaining jobs and the economy, and the federal government should follow suit in their land management plans.
Mining group: Too high a price
While the American Exploration & Mining Association applauds the decision not to list the greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, it believes the Land Use Plan Amendments, or LUPAs, extract too high of a price, calling the LUPAs “an epic land grab.”
“It is disappointing that the collective efforts of the western states were rejected in favor of draconian land use restrictions and mineral withdrawals. The ‘not warranted’ determination is proof that the state and local plans, coupled with private conservation efforts are working,” Laura Skaer, AEMA executive director, said Tuesday. “We call on Secretary Jewell to explain why the states’ Sage-Grouse conservation plans were rejected in favor of the federal LUPAs, especially in view of the fact the Department of the Interior (DOI) reached a ‘not warranted’ decision without them.”
The lek buffers, disturbance caps, travel and land use restrictions and recommended mineral withdrawals in the LUPAs will have a devastating impact on access to public lands, the economies of the Western states and the ability of the nation to produce the strategic and critical minerals required for national defense, manufacturing and economic prosperity, she said.
“We have long thought this effort was more about ‘stop doing that’ than conserving sage-grouse and its habitat. The federal LUPAs prove we were right,” Skaer said.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
The NRCS played a big role in the conservation effort. Through the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, more than 1,100 ranchers have restored or conserved approximately 4.4 million acres of key habitat.
Through the recently announced SGI 2.0 strategy, the Agriculture Department expects voluntary, private land conservation efforts to reach 8 million acres by 2018. On private and federal lands, the FWS and BLM have received commitments on 5.5 million acres through Candidate Conservation Agreements. Many of these projects also improve grazing and water supplies for ranchers, benefiting cattle herds and the long-term future of ranching in the West, according to the Interior Department.
“Today’s decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations and rural communities. Through the comprehensive initiatives on both public and private lands, the partnership has made and will continue to make monumental strides in supporting the people and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush landscape.”
Compared to other states, Utah’s greater sage-grouse habitat is highly fragmented; the Utah plan proposes management based on actual greater sage-grouse populations rather than just habitat, according to the Interior Department.
The plan respects valid, existing rights, including those for oil and gas development, renewable energy, rights of way, locatable minerals and other permitted projects.
- About 95 percent of federal lands with high and medium oil and gas potential in Utah are outside of federally managed priority conservation areas, according to the Department of Interior.
- Utah removed 70,000 acres of invasive conifer to restore sagebrush grazing lands, implemented sustainable grazing on 173,000 acres and seeded 27,000 acres back to native perennial habitats.
- Wet meadows and associated chick survival is a limiting factor in Utah and other sagebrush landscapes. New to Utah in 2015 is acquisition and enhancement of more than 1,000 acres of such brood habitats.
- During grazing permit renewals and modifications on lands within sage-grouse habitat, the BLM will incorporate locally developed management objectives for sage-grouse habitat and rangeland health standards, consistent with ecological potential.
Fire is a big threat to sage-grouse; the Utah plan will help reduce the threat of rangeland fire by placing added priority on the prevention, suppression and restoration of sagebrush landscapes threatened by rangeland fire through improved federal, state and local collaboration and coordination, according to the Interior Department.
In 2015, Utah received $811,000 in targeted Fire and Invasive Assessment Tool funding for numerous sagebrush habitat restoration efforts, including the Parker Front project to remove juniper stands and seed native plants and grasses.
This funding will support a larger ongoing partnership with the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, which has already contributed $70,000 to treat 2,000 acres of priority habitat. These funds have been leveraged with outside money from the State of Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative and BLM’s Resilient Landscape program to increase the investment in fire protection measures for sagebrush habitat in the state.
Across Utah, BLM fire suppression resources have been increased by roughly 10 percent. This has allowed the state to fully staff fire engines and add additional engines and bulldozers to respond to wildfires, according to the Interior Department.
Greater sage-grouse once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West, according to the Interior Department. Early European settlers reported seeing millions of birds take to the skies. But the bird, known for its flamboyant mating ritual, has lost almost half of its habitat since then.
Despite losses, sage-grouse populations are still relatively large and well-distributed across the range. The Fish and Wildlife Service anticipates that some sage-grouse populations may continue to decline in parts of the range as conservation efforts begin to take effect.
The greater sage-grouse is an umbrella species, representing the health of sagebrush habitat it shares with more than 350 other kinds of wildlife such as mule deer, elk, pronghorn and golden eagles.
In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the greater sage-grouse warranted ESA protection because of population declines caused by loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat, coupled with a lack of regulatory mechanisms to control habitat loss.
About half of the sage-grouse’s habitat is on federal lands, most of it managed by the BLM and USFS – mainly drier uplands where the birds mate, nest and spend fall and winter.
About 45 percent of the grouse’s habitat is on state and private lands, which often include the wetter meadows and riparian habitat that are essential for young chicks.
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