— Conservation groups today filed a lawsuit
over more than a dozen greater sage- grouse plans produced by federal agencies that fail to protect this iconic western bird from a series of threats, including fossil fuel development, grazing and mining. The plans cover about 70 million acres of public lands in 10 states, administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The suit doesn’t seek to eliminate the plans but to strengthen them with science-based protections recommended by the government’s own scientists.
“The federal sage-grouse plans are a crazy-quilt of weak protections and politically motivated loopholes that allow many of the most destructive activities to continue,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Federal agencies turned their backs on the habitat protections recommended by their own scientists, and instead adopted political compromises that can’t — and won’t — prevent further sage-grouse declines.”
Because the Department of the Interior broke up the planning process into fifteen different plans, the resulting blueprint is full of loopholes and giveaways. Protections from oil and gas drilling are weakest in Wyoming, which has the most abundant remaining sage-grouse populations and the heaviest oil and gas development. Nevada has the biggest geothermal industry of any sage-grouse state, but geothermal development in that state doesn’t have to meet habitat-protection standards. And the largest transmission lines currently in the planning stages have all been exempted from sage-grouse protections under the federal plans. Well-developed science, including the BLM’s own National Technical Team recommendations, shows what greater sage-grouse need to survive and recover; yet the plans fail to adopt these science-based protections.
“Amending all the federal plans to improve sage-grouse protections and designate priority habitats is an important step forward, but ultimately the federal plans failed to meet the scientifically established minimum protections that sage-grouse require to survive,” said Nancy Hilding of Prairie Hills Audubon Society. “This lawsuit is designed to strengthen sage-grouse protections to at least meet minimum requirements needed to maintain or recover populations on key habitats.”
Grazing is a chronic threat to sage-grouse habitat throughout the bird’s range. The federal plans further undermine sage-grouse conservation by delaying meaningful changes to livestock grazing for up to 10 years or more. In addition to these delays, the plans do not go far enough in restricting livestock trampling and disturbing nesting sage-grouse, undermining successful reproduction. The failure to adequately address grazing impacts will allow continued conversion of sagebrush habitat to invasive cheatgrass wastelands, increasing the likelihood of unnaturally frequent and destructive wildfires in sage-grouse habitat that cost millions of dollars annually to fight.
“Failing to require immediate reforms to livestock grazing abuses just presses ‘pause’ on necessary protections and will only benefit special interests and harm the bird,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “Grazing not only affects the vegetation that sage-grouse need for cover, but also accelerates cheatgrass invasions and stokes the cycle of unnaturally frequent wildfires across sage-grouse range.”
“It’s crazy that the state with the most healthy population of sage-grouse got the greatest loopholes for oil and gas,” said Todd Tucci, an attorney with Advocates for the West representing the groups.
Scientists consider the greater sage-grouse an indicator species, meaning they serve as bellwethers of broader ecosystem health. Declines in grouse populations signal broader land-health problems that threaten up to 350 species of native wildlife that call the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem home.
“When you look at the plans the pattern of special interest give-aways becomes clear,” said Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This issue is about far more than the sage-grouse. It’s about the iconic Sagebrush Sea, hundreds of other species, and recreation opportunities for this and future generations.”
The legal challenge encompasses all 14 of the recently adopted sage-grouse plan amendments and revisions plus the Lander Resource Management Plan, which the Bureau of Land Management finalized in 2014.
Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and Prairie Hills Audubon Society are represented in the case by attorneys from Advocates for the West.
A copy of today's complaint is available online here.