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Environment

Biologists Criticize Science In Federal Plans To Help Sage Grouse

sagegrouseatlek.jpg
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region
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Greater sage grouse at a lek near Bodie, California.

In late 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to list the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered or threatened species.  In preparation for this decision, another federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management, is coordinating a set of plans aimed at protecting the bird and keeping it off the endangered species list.

A group of sage grouse scientists, however, say those plans lack sound science and fail to adequately protect the grouse.

In a Thursday conference call, Ken Rait, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Western Lands Initiative, said that wildlife biologists believe "there is significant discrepancy between science and the plans."

In a June letter sent to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, a group of 15 wildlife scientists, 12 of them with doctoral degrees, outlined some of the problems they saw with the draft plans. (Final versions will be released in early 2015, so the BLM may still revise them.)

One problem with the plans, the scientists said, is that they lack consistency, "essentially creating 15 different management approaches to sage-grouse conservation within and across state boundaries."

While some variations are necessary due to regional differences, the variability in the plans is not based in science, the biologists said. For example, one plan may require a certain buffer distances for oil and gas activity or surface disturbance from a priority conservation area or sage grouse breeding ground, and another plan would have a different requirement.

"Unfortunately, the protections vary a lot from plan to plan, and most of those are not based in science as they are cherry picking pieces of science to make things easy," said Terry Riley, a wildlife biologist and director of conservation policy at the North American Grouse Partnership.

The other criticism the scientists laid out is that the conservation measures the BLM recommends are not supported by the best available science.

Matt Holloran, a principal and senior ecologist with Wyoming Wildlife Consultants, also criticized the BLM draft plans for failing to come up with a coordinated effort to manage invasive species like cheatgrass and medusahead, which, after wildfire, come in and take over important sagebrush habitat. In fact, in some of the plans, burning sagebrush was considered as a tool in wildlife managers toolboxes, which Holloran said was a bad idea.

"The science is pretty conclusive that fire should not be considered a management option," he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will rely on the BLM's final plans to help it make a decision on whether or not to list the sage grouse as threatened or endangered. Greater sage grouse numbers declined at a rate of 2 percent per year from 1965 - 2003, and while there has been some stabilization, the negative trend has yet to reverse itself.

If the species gets listed, the impacts will ripple throughout Colorado and the West, as farmers and ranchers, energy producers and recreationists will all be forced to adapt to a new set of regulations across a wide swath of land.

Unless the Fish and Wildlife Service has faith that the BLM plans will help the species turn around, a listing seems likely, the biologists said.

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