The greater sage grouse, a popular game bird that once numbered in the millions, is in serious trouble. In the mostly public western habitats required by these birds, population estimates have been plummeting for decades.
Adding greater sage grouse to the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act is "warranted," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But a final decision will not come until 2015.
To its credit, the Obama administration is not waiting. Instead, federal agencies have launched a remarkably ambitious land conservation initiative in the 11 western states where the grouse is found.
This initiative is designed to make it easier to save grouse habitats that are increasingly coveted by the oil, gas, geothermal, coal, solar, and wind industries. Many of these landscapes have already been degraded by sprawling energy facilities and by the roads and power lines that come with them. Others have been mined, overgrazed, fenced off, damaged by off-road vehicles, or planted with communications towers.
Research commissioned by Bureau of Land Management has established that the greater sage grouse needs wide open spaces to survive and that precious little of its former range remains intact. These are lands that helped define the character of the United States. If they are protected, the environmental legacy of the Obama administration will become much brighter.
For that reason — and because the greater sage grouse badly needs to be protected — we applaud the BLM and the USDA Forest Service for agreeing to update the management plans used to regulate development of most of the lands used by the grouse.
Scientists associated with a national technical team created by BLM have concluded that these birds will be more likely to avoid extinction and begin recovering if less than 3 percent of its key habitats are disturbed. Progress toward that goal could help avoid an Endangered Species Act listing, which could trigger political turmoil and legal battles.
Unfortunately, the 15 draft land management proposals issued by the BLM, as they stand, will not save the landscapes needed by the birds. Public comments could help change those drafts plans, however.
ABC and other groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, are recommending that public comments call on federal agencies to designate protected reserves for greater sage grouse populations and sharply limit or ban oil and gas leases in key habitats. Livestock grazing should be managed to leave adequate ground cover in grouse nesting areas and to protect springs and other riparian habitats where these birds raise their young.
On private lands used by the grouse, the federal government needs to keep encouraging ranchers and farmers to voluntarily protect important areas. A sage grouse initiative led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has already provided nearly $250 million to landowners who improve grazing practices or establish conservation easements. Funding for these programs needs to be maintained by Congress.
Some Congressional leaders recognize the need to start doing more to save important sage-grouse habitat. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has released draft legislation that would save these lands in the state of Nevada as "wilderness areas."
It’s our hope that the Obama administration will help do the same for greater sage grouse habitats found in the 10 other western states where grouse are found. Future generations — and the greater sage grouse — will be better off.
George Fenwick is president of the American Bird Conservancy.
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