BLM offers updated sage grouse plan

Keystone species of sagebrush steppe has lost 80% of population in past 60 years

Posted 3/19/24

The Bureau of Land Management released a draft Thursday of an updated sage grouse management plan, placing species protections back on track after several years of disruptions to the historic 2015 …

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BLM offers updated sage grouse plan

Keystone species of sagebrush steppe has lost 80% of population in past 60 years


The Bureau of Land Management released a draft Thursday of an updated sage grouse management plan, placing species protections back on track after several years of disruptions to the historic 2015 sage grouse plan. That was then credited for halting plans for costly protections for the species under the Endangered Species Act.

Following 2019 court orders overturning Trump administration changes to the historic collaborative plans, the BLM has been managing sage grouse habitat according to those adopted in 2015, the agency said. However since then, sage grouse populations have continued to decline, and recent science shows the need for updated plans to allow decisive action across state boundaries to achieve lasting benefits for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat.

The BLM’s draft plan incorporates new sage grouse conservation science and lessons learned, accommodating changing resources conditions while increasing implementation flexibility, the agency said in the announcement. The BLM considered nearly 1,900 comments gathered during an initial public scoping period and information shared by state, local, federal and tribal partners in more than 100 meetings. 

“The majesty of the West and its way of life are at stake. Sagebrush lands are places where people work and play, and they are the headwaters for the West’s major rivers,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “Joint efforts to conserve the greater sage grouse and its habitat led to the largest collaborative conservation effort in our history, and we are building on that work, together with our partners, to ensure the health of these lands and local economies into the future.”

The 2015 plan to keep sage grouse from being listed for protections was signed during the Obama administration after multi-year cooperative efforts by federal agencies, states, private landowners, industry, and conservation organizations. The plans to protect the bird “significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90% of the species’ breeding habitat,” enabling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the bird did not warrant listing.

Former Gov. Matt Mead led the effort for Wyoming during the negotiations prior to Trump administration changes.

The new BLM plan will be “closely scrutinized” by Gov. Mark Gordon, according to statements made last week.

The new plan could have a disproportionate effect on Wyoming citizens and industries and any proposed BLM actions that do not align with the core areas established through Wyoming-led processes will be closely looked at, Gordon said.

“Our leadership on this matter has shown state-led efforts are effective, as evidenced by Wyoming having more sage-grouse than any other state,” he said. “Wyoming maintains primary management authority of most wildlife, including sage-grouse, and deference should be given to our management processes, population assessments, identification of core areas, prudent use of no surface occupancy restrictions in mineral and oil and gas development and stewardship areas.”

Gordon said the draft plan was long awaited and he is concerned about how well the BLM will respect state-led efforts.

“While more analysis of this is needed, the first pass shows the BLM picked a preferred alternative that will allow for detailed comments that specifically addresses Wyoming’s concerns, including that the preferred alternative does not propose Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) on top of our state identified core areas,” he said.

Greater sage grouse rely on sagebrush lands for all aspects of their life cycle to meet seasonal needs for food, cover and reproduction. A local population may need up to 40 square miles of intact landscape to stay healthy, the BLM reported Thursday.

The proposed plans designate habitat management areas and identify management actions “intended to avoid and minimize loss of habitat due to other uses of the lands,” the BLM said. Measures such as disturbance caps, buffers, siting criteria, terms and conditions, and stipulations are prescribed as ways to achieve habitat objectives intended to sustain sage grouse populations.

The plan also specifies ways to conserve and restore habitat through the treatment of invasive annual grasses that crowd out sagebrush and other native plants, and removes conifers (mostly junipers) that have advanced on the landscape beyond their historical locations. These treatments also restore downgraded landscapes, including those impacted by wildfire.

The agency said flexibility is important as they will concentrate on monitoring and evaluating while being ready to adapt to new data. The agency will combine data on habitat combined with population estimates collected by state agencies to analyze how changes in habitat from both natural events and management actions may be linked to trends in the numbers of greater sage grouse in a given area.

However, producing credible population estimates of the birds is difficult. The BLM estimates the current population at about 800,000, but most conservation organizations, including the National Audubon Society, estimate current populations somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000.

Populations tend to go through boom-and-bust cycles every decade or so, which can mask longer-term trends, the Audubon Society reports. Because the birds are well camouflaged and adept at hiding in sagebrush, the only viable way to count them is by tallying males at leks. Wildlife agencies in states that host the birds conduct their own lek counts and use the number of males to extrapolate broader population data.

Some conservation organizations complain the agency’s preferred alternative fails to designate areas of critical environmental concern, despite the recognition that this management category affords stronger protections for the species. Alternatives proposed about 11 million acres of this protective designation, but this is a fraction of what conservation groups proposed in 2022.

Listing the species for protections has been seen as the only option to some, that is unless government agencies are willing to make significant new investments in restoring habitat and get tough about restricting mining, oil and gas drilling, and other development in sage-grouse habitat.

However, the new draft plan gives some renewed hope for a lasting compromise, according to the Center for Western Priorities.

“This plan represents the last best hope to save the sage grouse and avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act,” said the Center’s Deputy Director Aaron Weiss. “It’s unfortunate that the 2015 grouse plan never had a chance to get off the ground. This new plan represents the best of that original plan, enhanced by another nine years of science, with more flexibility for governors and local stakeholders.”

Weiss said sage grouse are a barometer for the health of the entire sagebrush sea, which is often looked at for little more than underground resources.

“Saving this ecosystem will take hard work by federal, state, and local governments, working alongside private landowners and conservation groups. This plan provides the blueprint for success,” he said.

The BLM manages the largest single share of sage grouse habitat in the United States—nearly 67 million acres of 145 million total acres. Annually, the BLM invests approximately $35 million of its congressional appropriation in sagebrush ecosystem projects, supplemented by $123 million from the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and complemented by investments by state and local governments, Tribes, stakeholder groups, and private landowners.

“Protecting and restoring sagebrush on BLM-managed public lands across the West is critical not just for greater sage grouse, but also for the health of western communities and other iconic Western species that rely on healthy sagebrush, including mule deer, pronghorn, and the pygmy rabbit,” the agency said in announcing the draft. “Additionally, these collaboratively developed landscape-level plans will ensure that other multiple uses of BLM sagebrush lands — including clean energy projects — move forward in a manner that limits impacts to sensitive resources and can also help combat climate change — a main driver of greater sage-grouse habitat loss.”

The draft environmental impact statement and proposed plan amendments opened for public comment on March 15. The comment period will end on June 13.

Information on how to submit a comment: