Jack Connelly and Jim Sedinger: Will science or politics guide the future of greater sage grouse?

Scientists have spent decades studying greater sage grouse, creating a compelling body of scientific information that can be used to responsibly manage sage-grouse populations and habitats.

Sadly, critically important information is being ignored by current Bureau of Land Management leadership as sage-grouse populations and habitat continue to decline. Many natural resource experts are concerned — and here’s why.

In 2010, the range-wide greater sage grouse population was considered warranted for protections under the Endangered Species Act, setting off a flurry of activity, including amendments to existing federal land use plans to conserve the bird. The BLM finalized those plans in 11 states across millions of acres of public land giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence to conclude that sage grouse did not warrant listing in September 2015.

However, the ink had barely dried on those plans when then Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced the BLM would re-open them for further amendment. In 2019, new plans were adopted that afforded greater potential for development and mineral extraction within important sage grouse habitat and no longer required damages to habitat on public lands be compensated or mitigated.

Lawsuits were filed and, last October, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the BLM failed to fully analyze how sage grouse would be affected by changes to the 2015 land-use plans. The court blocked the BLM from implementing the 2019 amended plans.

In his order, Judge Winmill noted that “when the BLM substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification — a hard look — in the NEPA documents.”

In response, the BLM started a new review process, but failed to take a “hard look” and use the best available science preparing these documents. Remarkably, the BLM did not appear to use any new information in its response to the court’s decision. This is astonishing given changes in sage grouse populations and habitats since 2015.

Sage grouse populations declined about 2% annually across their range from 1965 to 2015. Recent trends indicate declines are continuing and possibly increasing. From 2015-2019, state data indicate sage grouse populations have declined 44% on average. Some argue these are normal fluctuations due to population cycles, but many scientists disagree and suggest declines are driven by continued habitat loss and degradation.

Sagebrush habitats on public lands continue to be lost. Leasing and development in sage grouse priority habitat has increased tenfold since 2015. Since January 2017, BLM leased over 2.4 million acres and issued 3,570 drilling permits in sage-grouse habitat. Further, from 2016-2019, approximately 3 million acres of BLM lands burned in Idaho, Nevada and Utah, a 43% increase in acres burned in these states over the previous 4 years. Annual acres burned are projected to increase by five to 11 times in Western states supporting sage grouse.

The scientific community remains committed to providing reliable knowledge to support science-based management and conservation of sage grouse and sagebrush habitats. Scientists are neither alarmists or naïve to the multiple-use mandate of land management agencies and the needs of western states to balance their economy with conservation.

Nevertheless, the BLM has an obligation to address significant new information concerning sage grouse population declines and loss of sagebrush habitats as they respond to the court’s decision. So far, they have failed to do so.

Will science or politics guide the future of sage grouse? One thing is for sure — continuing to ignore the facts threatens the BLM’s federal trust responsibility to conserve and manage our natural resources on America’s public lands and may have severe consequences for sage grouse and the long-term health of sagebrush country.

Jack Connelly

Jack Connelly, Ph.D., is a retired wildlife biologist, formerly employed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He spent most of his 40-plus year career studying sage grouse.

Jim Sedinger

Jim Sedinger, Ph.D., is a recently retired professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Nevada Reno. He has studied game birds, including sage grouse, for more than 40 years.