Interior unveils sage-grouse review results

The Interior Department on Monday released the results of a review of plans to protect the greater sage-grouse in the West and Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the immediate implementation of its recommendations.

These include modifying or replacing policy pertaining to oil and gas leasing and development, and working with states to improve methods to let them set appropriate population objectives. However, the report acknowledged the importance that habitat availability plays in the bird’s future.

In May, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, co-chairs of the Federal-State Sage Grouse Task Force, had written Zinke that moving from a habitat management model to one setting population goals for states “is not the right decision.”

The new review recommendations also include evaluating captive breeding and predator control as management options, but it also pointed to the limitations of both approaches.

In 2015, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service released plans governing management of greater sage-grouse habitat across 11 states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited those plans in deciding the bird didn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Numerous conservation groups have criticized the Interior review process and resulting report. Nada Culver, senior counsel with the Wilderness Society and director of its BLM Action Center, said in a news release that the 60-day review shows a “callous disregard” for nearly a decade of work by states and agencies.

“The recommendations are a sideways attempt to abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development and in favor of discredited, narrow tools like captive breeding and population targets. Gutting the structure of these plans puts the entire landscape at risk,” she said.

Fred Jarman, deputy manager for Garfield County, informed Garfield commissioners about the new review report Monday, adding, “It’s actually pretty exciting news.”

The county decided in May to lead a legal challenge of the federal sage-grouse conservation effort, with Rio Blanco, Moffat and Jackson counties also participating.

The counties are concerned in part about the impact the sage-grouse plan in northwestern Colorado could have on oil and gas development. Jarman told commissioners the new review’s recommendations included evaluating the ability to adjust priority and general sage-grouse habitat boundaries without plan amendments, and he also cited the attention it gives to predator control and population estimates.

The report concedes that sage-grouse numbers fluctuate widely within states and range-wide based on weather, climate and habitat conditions.

“While (s)tates support efforts to estimate and explain populations, fluctuations, and trends, any such effort must recognize and account for the relationship between the species and its habitat,” the report says. “Further, any population metric would have to reflect the natural range of variability … and be tied to habitat availability. Ultimately, the best method for determining (sage-grouse) viability will be to assess a combination of habitat availability and populations, which are inseparable.”

While predation deserves attention, it may present localized threats, such as to small, isolated or reintroduced populations, but doesn’t constitute a larger threat, the report says.

“Even in (localized) circumstances, however, predator control should be simultaneous with efforts to address the underlying reasons for predator population growth or concentration in localized areas of concern,” it says.

As for captive breeding, it’s “best suited to augmenting small, at-risk populations for short periods of time, while factors contributing to population declines are simultaneously addressed,” the report says.

“Because captive breeding of (sage-grouse) has not yet proven effective, requires expenditures that would limit funding availability for other priority efforts and may require the removal of potentially viable eggs from the wild, further work is needed to fairly evaluate captive breeding.”


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