(EnviroNews Nature) — Washington D.C. — Falling in line with a recent expansive EnviroNews report detailing a barrage of end-of-term rollbacks, species de-listings, and slashes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Trump Administration’s Interior Department (DOI) announced it would be lobbing another volley of rollbacks at the imperiled sage grouse – a unique dancing bird centered smack-dab in the costliest, and most politically fraught, endangered species battle in history. On Nov. 19, 2020, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the supplemental National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents for six states as required by an Oct. 19, 2019 court ruling. But environmentalists say those plans fall far short.
These supplemental environmental impact statements (SEISs) for Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada/northeastern California, and Oregon uphold the BLM’s original conclusions for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and its habitat and limit protections for the iconic bird across 51 million acres of the American West. Conservation groups say they fail to meet demands already laid out in federal court.
“The judge made clear in deciding to enjoin the BLM from implementing its revised plans that the agency failed to meet the requirements of NEPA in issuing new plans in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon by failing to adequately consider the consequences of these plans for remaining sage grouse populations,” said Jim Lyons, Vice President of Landscape Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders), in an email to EnviroNews. “[Judge B. Lynn] Winmill wrote, ‘When the BLM substantially reduced protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification.’ The SEISs still fail to address this requirement.”
According to an AP analysis of the plans, the SEISs contain identical wording and did not make any change to the proposed policies blocked by Judge Winmill in Boise in 2019. They ease restrictions on mining, gas and oil development, and grazing — activities that Winmill acknowledged would likely hurt the greater sage grouse across the habitat areas.
“It’s pretty obvious that some of the biggest and most powerful industrial lobbying groups from the mining industry to the livestock industry to the oil and gas industry all have a big stake on preventing sage grouse conservation from happening because they want to use the sage grouse habitats, which stretch over tens of millions of acres of public land in the West; they want those acres to go into their profit margins,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project (WWP), in an on-camera interview with EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry earlier this month.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), greater sage grouse are difficult to count, and population estimates range between 100,000 and 500,000 individuals. The plans will officially be published in the Federal Register on Friday, which will allow them to take affect just before Trump leaves office making it difficult for the Biden Administration to make changes. Despite the USFWS’ recognition of “long-term population declines,” the Trump Administration has made no effort to further protections for the birds.
But Lyons sees this as an ongoing problem under the current president, saying the Administration has been out to blatantly dismantle years of work carried out by the largest coalition of partners, agencies, universities and working groups, ever assembled to help a species in distress:
The Trump Administration’s efforts have focused on unravelling the carefully constructed sage grouse conservation plans issued by the BLM and Forest Service in September 2015. These plans were the product of years of collaboration among officials in the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [within] the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service [inside the] USDA, federal and state land managers, state fish and wildlife agency officials, and the governors’ offices of the 11 states in which the greater sage grouse remains. The plans were based on the recommendations of a state-federal conservation objectives team and research conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, university scientists, and other contributors.
Soon after taking office, Interior Secretary Zinke rescinded those plans and instead simply asked the states to offer their own suggestions for managing the sage grouse which led to the Trump administration plans and management direction that reversed course on key elements of the 2015 plans: permitting oil and gas leasing in priority sage grouse habitat, weakening rules to limit habitat disturbance for the bird, eliminating the requirement that damage to habitat be mitigated, and eliminating rules to protect sagebrush focal areas which the USFWS deemed critical to the conservation of the species. The “new” plans issued by the BLM earlier this week do little to address the NEPA issues that led Judge Winmill to enjoin the Trump-era plans and are antithetical to the science-based measures to protect the grouse that were the foundation for the 2015 plans.
The Interior Department itself says protecting the sage grouse has been the single costliest battle for an endangered species in U.S. history. Groups like WWP, Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians have filed several successful lawsuits over the course of the fight against Trump Interior Department.
“The Trump Administration has been trying to gut [sage grouse] protections. Those efforts have been illegal. We’ve been dragging them into court; we’ve been kicking their butt in court, and we’ve been stripping their ability to gut those regulations so far,” Molvar asserted to EnviroNews.
The weakening of protections isn’t the only problem the greater sage grouse faces. According to Molvar, the Republicans in Congress have continually added a rider into the nationwide budget spending bill: the CR Omnibus. That rider, nestled in the must-pass appropriations bill every year since 2014, seeks to prohibit the Interior Department from spending any money on listing the greater sage grouse under the ESA. It’s been included again in the most current budget.
“Defenders is working with other wildlife and conservation organizations to remove an appropriations rider in the end-of-year appropriations bill now being considered by the Congress that prohibits the USFWS from listing the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered,” said Lyons. “This language only emboldens the Trump Administration to propose actions that could harm the grouse or its habitat — as the 2019 BLM sage grouse plans would do.”
The sage grouse is the subject of an expansive EnviroNews documentary titled, Lions and Tigers and Sage Grouse?… Oh My! The Granddaddy Endangered Species Battle of Them All. These birds are extremely sensitive to disturbances and tend to remain in one area over the course of their lives.
“Conservationists understand that if you can protect the sage grouse, you can protect over 300 other species of plants and animals that depend on those exact same sage brush habitats,” continued Molvar. “If you can protect the sage grouse, you can protect the entire eco-system and you can save the West and those wide-open spaces and those recreational opportunities that Americans have come to love so much.”
OTHER AMAZING SAGE GROUSE REPORTS BY ENVIRONEWS