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Researchers: Changes to Sage Grouse Plan Should Be Based on Science

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., says he supports the 2015 sage grouse conservation plan. (Katie Theule/US Fish and Wildlife Service)
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., says he supports the 2015 sage grouse conservation plan. (Katie Theule/US Fish and Wildlife Service)
January 17, 2018

HELENA, Mont. – The Interior Department is expected to announce its decision soon on the fate of the sage grouse conservation plan, which spans Montana and 10 other western states.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says his agency is re-examining the plan to see if it hinders energy development, meaning sage grouse habitat could be opened up to more drilling and mining.

Jack Connelly is a former wildlife biologist who worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for nearly three decades. He and 16 other scientists sent a letter to Zinke in October expressing concern that the voices of scientists and wildlife managers weren't being heard on this decision.

"If policymakers and agency leadership want to seriously address sage grouse conservation, they have got to embrace the science, and the scientists and the habitat managers and so forth, and bring them in and listen to their advice,” he stresses. “And that's simply not being done."

Connelly says researchers know more about sage grouse than almost any other species in the West. He says the birds need large areas to thrive, and breaking up the land for development threatens their ability to survive.

The plan was finalized in 2015 under the Obama administration. In October, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana sent a letter to the head of the Bureau of Land Management in support of the 2015 plan.

As an indicator species, sage grouse conservation also helps protect more than 350 other species.

Matt Holloran is a leading sage grouse researcher who headed the group of scientists that sent the letter to Zinke. He says science supports the current approach to management and conservation.

"We actually have information to say, 'Okay, 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."

Holloran adds the sage grouse already has lost half its habitat and 95 percent of its historic population.

Its range is part of an iconic landscape that stretches across 50 million acres in 11 Western states.

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

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT