The Obama administration Thursday released a long-awaited plan to help save the greater sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that lives in several Western states.
The action by the departments of Interior and Agriculture are designed to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development on portions of public lands.
The battle over saving the bird has pitted environmentalists and conservationists with energy and other business interests, who said the measures could impact development.
The plans for states to manage greater sage-grouse habitat seek to reduce habitat fragmentation and protect intact habitat by implementing surface disturbance caps on development; improve habitat conditions; and reduce the threat of rangeland fire. According to federal officials, wildfire is one of the greatest threats to sagebrush habitat, particularly in the Great Basin region of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.
The federal action includes environmental impact statements and plans to guide land management on federal lands in 10 Western states. It is now undergoing a 60-day review period.
“The West is rapidly changing – with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement. “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.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the action was a good start, with President Rhea Suh saying in a statement: “The greater sage-grouse conservation plan is a huge step in the right direction that holds out the promise to save not only this beautiful bird but also hundreds of other species, while protecting some of America’s most precious and scenic lands.”
Energy interests pushed back against the plan. The Western Energy Alliance, through Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs, said in a statement that the issue would be better handled by individual states.
“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,” Sgamma said. “That goal is best achieved at the state level, not with a one-size-fits-all federal approach. Western Energy Alliance will protest all land use plan amendments that fail to conform with state plans, and will continue to support actions by Congress to delay these land use plans and a final listing decision.”
While the ground-dwelling bird is under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the plan released Thursday could help avoid that listing, which would have dramatic impact on development.
According to federal officials, greater sage-grouse habitat currently covers 165 million acres across 11 states in the West. The birds’ population once likely numbered in the millions, but is now estimated to be fewer than 500,000.