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Scientists Urge Zinke's Interior to Let Sage Grouse Plan Work

Scientists warn that increased oil and gas development in critical sage-grouse habitat could cause more birds to abandon mating sites known as leks. (Pxhere)
Scientists warn that increased oil and gas development in critical sage-grouse habitat could cause more birds to abandon mating sites known as leks. (Pxhere)
July 3, 2018

DENVER – 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 have sent a letter urging the agency to follow the best available science when making land-management decisions.

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

"Looking backward and trying to change the plans is the wrong approach," Holloran says. "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 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 says wholesale changes in the plan are not likely to lead to positive outcomes. He says much remains unknown about how to restore lost habitat, but scientists do know oil and gas development has caused large swaths 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 stresses.

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 to maintain the vegetation landscapes that provide shelter and food.

Public comments on the proposed changes are being accepted through Aug. 2.

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

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO