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Scientists Criticize Changes to Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan

Scientists worry that conservation plans for sage grouse that aren't based on their whole habitat won't be effective. (Jennifer Strickland/USFWS)
Scientists worry that conservation plans for sage grouse that aren't based on their whole habitat won't be effective. (Jennifer Strickland/USFWS)
June 29, 2018

BOISE, Idaho – Scientists are pushing back against changes proposed to the multi-state Greater Sage Grouse Management Plan by the Trump administration. Twenty-one sage-grouse experts signed a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressing concern over the Bureau of Land Management's proposal to focus more on individual states' approaches to conservation, rather than habitat-wide efforts.

The plan spans 11 states, including Idaho, and was crafted over several years to keep the bird off the endangered species list. Terry Riley, retired wildlife biologist with the North American Grouse Partnership signed the letter. He says the administration should keep the current plan in place.

"A lot of federal agencies, a lot of state agencies, a lot of NGOs, a lot of public citizens, a lot of local communities and businesses all came together to pull these plans together,” says Riley. “And making major changes now, after we went through all this work, is just not a very good plan."

Revising the plan could also open up some sage grouse habitat to oil and gas production, reflecting the Trump's commitment to prioritize fossil-fuel development. The sage grouse has lost half its habitat and 95 percent of its historic population in the West.

Along with the threat of energy production, Riley says invasive cheatgrass is creating fuel for wildfires and disrupting habitat not just for the bird, but more than 300 other species that also call the "sagebrush sea" home.

"If you burn sagebrush and it's hot enough, it takes about 50 years to recover,” says Riley. “So, it takes a long, long time to get the sagebrush condition back that you want. That's the kind of in the western part of the sage grouse range – in Idaho and Nevada, and Montana and parts of Wyoming."

Sage-grouse researcher Matt Holloran also signed the letter to Zinke. He says the BLM's proposed modifications aren't based on scientific evidence.

"Looking backwards and trying to change the plans is the wrong approach,” says Holloran. “I think we should be moving forward with the plans, and amending those in an adaptive way – science-based. Let's use the monitoring data that's collected as a component of implementing these plans, and make changes that are grounded in science."

The BLM is accepting public comment on the changes through August 2nd.

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

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID