Greater Sage-Grouse Protection

The Environmental & Energy Law Program is tracking the environmental regulatory rollbacks of the Trump administration. Click here for the list of rules we are following

Why it Matters

Greater sage-grouse are native to sagebrush and juniper grasslands throughout the Western US, and north into Canada. They are the largest North American grouse and are known for their charismatic mating dance. They are an “umbrella species” – indicating how healthy the habitat is that they share with hundreds of other wildlife species. Habitat fragmentation and degradation have led to plummeting populations across their range. A conservation and habitat management plan was crafted with cooperation from Western states governors, public land users, and environmental groups as a compromise to prevent listing the birds under the Endangered Species Act. If the plan is repealed, states will no longer be required to follow the conservation plan. 

Current Status

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued a “Notice of Intent to Amend Land Use Plans Regarding Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Prepare Associated Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Assessments.” The proposed amendments shift management plans to the states, forgoing the habitat plan that was developed among the Western states and land users, and BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. BLM has also issued an Instruction Memorandum directing staff to no longer prioritize leasing in non-sage-grouse habitat before leasing in habitat areas.

The Forest Service took comments on a proposal to amend “some, all, or none” of their management plan in cooperation with BLM through January 5, 2018.

BLM issued a “Scoping Report” on potential land use plan changes in January, 2018, but it did not account for tens of thousands of comments it received in response to the proposals. BLM has said it will file an addendum to the report that accounts for the missing comments. They began their Environmental Impact Statement study in March, 2018.

History

On May 7, 2001, in response to a petition, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that the Columbia Basin population of greater sage-grouse warranted stand-alone listing under the Endangered Species Act but that listing was “precluded by higher priority listing actions.”

On March 23, 2010, in response to several petitions, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined the greater sage-grouse should be listed as endangered but that there were higher priority listings to complete;  and that the Bi-State population (a group that lives on the California/Nevada border) was a distinct population whose listing was also warranted but precluded by higher priority listings.

Also in 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped to launch the Sage-grouse Initiative, a voluntary partnership with western landowners to protect greater sage-grouse habitat on private lands.

On May 10, 2011, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service settled a lawsuit with the Wild Earth Guardians, pledging to propose listing rules or determine whether or not to list 251 species as endangered or threatened  (including greater sage-grouse) no later than September 30, 2016.

On December 16, 2014, in the FY2015 budget, Congress prohibited the expenditure of funds to publish a proposed rule for the greater sage-grouse or the Columbian Basin population (Pub. L. Number 113–235).

On September 22, 2015, BLM and the USFS announced they had finalized 98 land use plans to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat in 10 western states.

On September 24, 2015 BLM proposed withdrawal of approximately 10 million acres from development to protect the greater sage-grouse, affecting 6 states.

On October 2, 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that listing the greater sage-grouse (or the Columbia Basin population) as threatened or endangered was not warranted under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service noted the finding complied with the lawsuit “and is consistent with Congressional direction.”

On February 25, 2016, environmental groups sued BLM for inadequate greater sage-grouse land management plans.

On September 1, 2016, BLM issued guidance for complying with the greater sage-grouse land use plans.

On December 26, 2016 BLM published an amended withdrawal proposal, adding acreage in Nevada. Public comment was open through March 28, 2017.

On January 5, 2017 the District Court of DC ruled that Idaho’s governor could not challenge the greater sage-grouse land use plans for Idaho and Montana.

Trump Era

On February 6, 2017 BLM announced that a 40% decline in a discrete population of greater sage-grouse in the Sheeprocks area of Utah triggered protective measures under the Obama era conservation plan. Measures include limits on vehicles and development and call for prioritizing habitat restoration.

On March 31, 2017, the federal district court for the District of Nevada directed BLM and USFS to supplement their findings for the land withdrawals in Nevada.

On June 7, 2017, Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Zinke issued Order No. 3353, “Greater Sage-grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States,” initiating a 60-day review of the 2015 land use plans.

On August 4, 2017, Secretary Zinke directed DOI to implement the recommendations from the 60-day review. Those include “investigating opportunities to provide additional waivers, modifications, and exceptions through policy or potential plan amendments” to promote “responsible economic growth,” and enabling grazing to take place in protected areas so long as it is not “improper grazing.”

On October 5, 2017 BLM announced it would rescind the September 24, 2015 proposal to withdraw roughly 10 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat from development.

On October 11, 2017 BLM published a “Notice of Intent to Amend Land Use Plans Regarding Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Prepare Associated Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Assessments.” The proposed amendments shift management plans to the states, forgoing the habitat plan that was developed between the Western states and BLM. They opened a public  comment period through November 27, 2017, or 15 days after the final public meeting, whichever came last. This ultimately extended the comment period through December 1, 2017

On October 23, 2017 the Western Values Project sued BLM for failure to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about the proposed changes to the greater sage-grouse plan.

On October 31, 2017 environmental groups filed an administrative appeal with DOI over “BLM’s decision to lease priority sage-grouse habitat in central Utah for oil and gas development, a move which jeopardizes the survival and recovery of the imperiled Sheeprocks population of greater sage-grouse.” The groups noted the February 6, 2017 finding of population decline in the Sheeprocks population mandated greater protections.

On November 21, 2017 the USFS published notice that it is considering amending some or all of its greater sage-grouse management plan in cooperation with BLM, in response to the March 31, 2017 ruling by the District of Nevada. The agency took comments on a proposal to amend “some, all, or none” of their management plan in cooperation with BLM through January 5, 2018.

On December 27, 2017 BLM issued an Instruction Memorandum on ” Implementation of Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Management Plan Revisions or Amendments – Oil & Gas Leasing and Development Prioritization Objective.” According to the memo, BLM no longer needs to prioritize leasing in non-sage-grouse habitat before considering leasing in habitat areas.

On January 12, 2018, citing research from The Nature Conservancy, High Country News reported that leasing in sage-grouse habitat areas “increased dramatically” in Wyoming last year and “plans to offer seven times more acres of sage grouse habitat in its first quarter lease sale in Wyoming this year than it did in its first quarter lease sale last year.”

On February 7, 2018 six Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary Zinke asking him to address their concerns about sage-grouse recovery in light of his December 27 Instruction Memorandum.

BLM began their Environmental Impact Statement study in March, 2018.

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