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Decision on Sage Grouse Habitat Expected Soon

Biologists estimate the number of sage grouse is down by as much as 95 percent from historic levels. (BLM)
Biologists estimate the number of sage grouse is down by as much as 95 percent from historic levels. (BLM)
January 17, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY – The Bureau of Land Management is expected to make a decision soon on the fate of sage grouse habitat protection plans that span 50 million acres in several western states including Utah.

The Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM, asked the agency to consider proposed changes that would open up more habitat to oil and gas production.

Wildlife biologist Jack Connelly is one of a number of scientists who signed a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging that any changes be based on the latest science.

"We were simply trying to underscore the importance of building sound natural resource policy on sound science,” he explains. “If we don't do that, then we're simply building policy as we would build a house of cards. It just won't stand."

Connelly says more is known about sage grouse habitat needs than just about any other western wildlife species, and adds that policy makers should listen to advice from scientists and habitat managers. He worries that's not happening.

Industry groups maintain the habitat management plans overestimated the impacts from energy production.

Conservationists warn that removing protections could put the sage grouse and 350 other species at risk.

Matt Holloran, a sage grouse researcher and investigator at the University of Wyoming, says reviewing the plans without considering all the years of scientific research is the wrong approach.

"We actually have information to say, 'OK, that is a good idea,' or 'That is not such a good idea,' with sage grouse in particular – a ton of research on that species,” he points out. “The management decisions that were forwarded in those plans are based on the information that we have and therefore have a pretty high likelihood of succeeding."

Connelly notes that sage grouse need large areas of landscape to survive, and says the push to break up that land could move the bird closer to an endangered status.

Scientists estimate sage grouse populations have been reduced by as much as 95 percent from their historic levels.

"We have to give the birds the entire package if we want grouse populations to be conserved and to persist for generations in the future to enjoy," he stresses.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - UT