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Scientists Weigh In on Proposed Changes to Sage-Grouse Plan

Scientists warn that increased oil and gas development in critical sage grouse habitat could cause more birds to abandon mating sites known as leks. (BLM)
Scientists warn that increased oil and gas development in critical sage grouse habitat could cause more birds to abandon mating sites known as leks. (BLM)
July 2, 2018

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Scientists are lining up in opposition to the U.S. Interior Department's proposed changes to the Greater Sage Grouse Management Plan. Twenty-one biologists and sage grouse experts sent a letter so Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke urging the agency to follow the best available science when making land management decisions.

Matt Holloran is the chief scientist with Wildlife Management Research Support, a leading wildlife research firm. He said the plan was developed with substantial stakeholder involvement, so it's important to give it time to work.

"There were industry representatives, agricultural representatives, conservation representatives,” Holloran said. “And most of those entities consider the approach that was developed in Wyoming to be a win-win across those different priorities."

The plan was put together over nearly a decade to keep the bird – whose populations have declined by nearly 95 percent from historic levels – off the endangered species list. The current plan allows for ranching, extraction, and other development over thousands of acres across eleven states while protecting habitat considered critical to sage grouse and more than 300 other species.

The Trump administration wants more lands to be opened up for oil and gas development in an effort to achieve what it calls energy dominance.

Certified wildlife biologist Terry Riley, policy director at the North American Grouse Partnership, said the original plan was designed to incorporate adaptations as new science became available, but wholesale changes are not likely to lead to positive outcomes. He said much remains unknown about how to restore lost habitat, but scientists do know oil and gas development has caused large numbers of birds to abandon critical mating sites, or “leks.”

"It's really critical when they authorize site-specific projects such as oil and gas development, or even grazing over large areas, that they really look at the condition of the landscape and how to either maintain it or improve it,” Riley said.

Scientists are calling on Interior to maintain large tracts of seasonal habitat to protect sage grouse genetic diversity, keep oil and gas drilling away from leks and other critical areas, and maintain the vegetation landscapes that provide shelter and food. The BLM will accept public comments on the proposed changes through August 2.


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

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY