Recently much has been made of the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird found on the rangelands of the Western United States known for its charismatic mating dance. But when talking about the greater sage-grouse, what we really are discussing is the health of the sagebrush sea--an expanse of wide open wildlands that stretches from New Mexico to Montana. What defines that vast landscape are two elements, sagebrush, and the greater sage-grouse. Before Western settlement, there were upwards of 14 million sage-grouse; the current population now hovers between 200,000 to 400,000 individuals. But this sagebrush sea is also home to 300 other species of wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and golden eagles. As the sage-grouse go, so does everything else associated with this landscape.
Given the bird's fragile circumstances, we have seen an extraordinary effort in the last few years from private landowners, conservationists, state governments, and federal land management agencies to work together to develop a conservation plan to protect and recover the greater sage-grouse. Critically, the most important element in this collective strategy is being finalized this week with the issuance of a Department of Interior (DOI) and U.S. Forest Service framework that guides conservation of sage-grouse and its sagebrush habitat on over 60 million acres of public lands throughout the Rocky Mountains.
The only thing regrettable about this current effort is that it took so long for responsible parties to act in the interest of conservation. Over 40 years ago, biologists working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were reporting that unregulated commercial livestock grazing operations that were taking place on over 160 million acres of public lands were transforming the landscape. One assessment found that by 1951 half of the range for sage-grouse had already been eliminated. A BLM report from 1973 found that the environmental impacts were so significant, that there was no way to even begin to fully assess and remedy the imbalance that livestock grazing operations were creating.
Due to these deplorable conditions, in the 1970s NRDC filed some of the first lawsuits under the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Many of these successful lawsuits focused on the fact that livestock grazing was essentially unregulated on federal lands, and despite the fact that the BLM was aware they had a problem, were unwilling to do anything about the ongoing environmental degradation to sagebrush habitat. Thankfully, the courts ruled that the BLM and the Forest Service needed to systematically address the environmental impacts to species like the greater sage-grouse caused by livestock grazing and other permitted activities. The success of NRDC's advocacy was a turning point in putting federal land management agencies on notice that permitted commercial activities had to undergo necessary environmental review. Despite that important demarcation, the BLM and the Forest Service did not exactly enthusiastically embrace these new mandates, and often conducted the bare minimum analysis (except when Congress frequently exempted the agencies from complying at all with NEPA). This indifference by the federal agencies further accelerated the fragmentation of sage-grouse habitat. Worse, in the last ten years an explosion of oil and gas drilling within previous sage-grouse strongholds such as Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana, has acted as a tipping point, placing the greater sage-grouse on the brink.
By 2004, inaction by the BLM and the Forest Service was too much for the federal courts to ignore. Under the threat of an endangered species listing under the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department was compelled to initiate a process to truly consider meaningful protections for greater sage-grouse. The rollout of final conservation plans by the BLM and the Forest Service represent the culmination of that process, and is noteworthy given that for the first time DOI is adopting a tangible framework that will require federal land managers to specifically account for the well-being of sage-grouse when contemplating additional activities within sagebrush habitat. This includes consideration of sage-grouse at a landscape level, by analyzing the cumulative impacts of permitted operations such as drilling, livestock grazing, wind energy development, and mining across broader regional areas. Critically, the conservation plans also include requirements that such operations must also implement mitigation efforts to enhance sage-grouse habitat, to further offset the impacts associated with commercial activities on federal lands.
Given these changes, the plans that have been put forth--if implemented properly--could be seen as a paradigm shift in how the Interior Department and the Forest Service approach conserving wildlife. There are legitimate concerns that the plans are not as scientifically robust as they could have been, and NRDC would agree that the Interior Department could always do better. But the key fact remains that the plans are not designed to be static, and that the value of this framework is that the recovery plans are fluid by design, requiring the agencies to adopt more effective conservation measures when circumstances dictate. And while the conservation mandates that are being implemented are nearly unprecedented in scope (and we applaud DOI for attempting to address the considerable threats to the greater sage grouse at this scale), NRDC believes that the plans should be seen as the ground floor, and not the ceiling in our collective efforts to save the sagebrush ecosystem. This is the largest joint conservation effort that we have seen in decades, and if successful not only will sage-grouse benefit, so will the incomparable wildlife that make the sagebrush sea so remarkable.