Review team submits sage-grouse management recommendations

By Jamila Blake

©Bob Wick, BLM

The U.S. Department of the Interior released a report, developed by the Sage-Grouse Review Team, which provides an assessment of the 2015 federal Greater Sage-Grouse plans and makes recommendations for changes to policies and regulations to complement state management efforts of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). The “Report in Response to Secretarial Order 3353” was submitted to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Aug. 4, and was published with a memorandum from Secretary Zinke to Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt on Aug. 7.

Secretarial Order 3353: “Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States” was signed by Secretary Zinke in June, prompting the establishment of the Sage-Grouse Review Team and the development of the Report. The Team was composed of professionals from Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BLM in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the Sage Grouse Task Force (SGTF).

The Review Team met with SGTF in July to further refine and validate the issues and action options covered in the Report. The Team also took steps to ensure the Report addressed issues and concerns laid out in the Secretarial Order. For example, Section 4b(v) of the Order calls for recommendations to be made regarding captive breeding, enhancement of state involvement, efficacy of state-by-state target populations, and steps that can be taken to maintain or improve current population levels and habitat conditions in the short term. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies developed and submitted white papers to SGTF concerning greater sage-grouse management as it relates to the four topics specified in the Order. The Wildlife Society submitted comments supporting efforts to enhance cooperation and collaboration on this issue, but emphasized that practices such as captive breeding have no scientific role in the science-based management of greater sage-grouse. Some of what the Review Team determined was that further work is needed to evaluate captive breeding of sage-grouse and recommended efforts continue to be investigated to improve effectiveness; and that establishment of statewide or range-wide population objectives should be pursued.

The Review Team recommended “continued collaboration with the States, initiation of stakeholder engagement, implementation of the short-term recommendations, and investigation of potential plan amendments” followed by a list of initial actions to take, such as clarifying appropriate use of compensatory mitigation and increasing consistency between federal and state plans, and investigating the removal or modification of Sage-grouse Focal Areas.

The Report identifies both short-term objectives — development of policies, clarification, memoranda of understanding (MOU), and training — and long-term objectives, like potential plan amendments, to achieve the purpose of the Secretarial Order. Additionally, the Review Team explored opportunities to improve collaboration on fire, fuels, and invasive species management and to develop MOUs, increase data sharing, initiate new research, and incorporate new information into plan implementation. According to the Report, “there is agreement that monitoring and reporting on conservation actions, habitat condition and trends, and economic development are essential” — acknowledging the importance of monitoring is assessing how well state and federal plans have addressed population threats including habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and fire.

Zinke’s memo supports the Report’s recommendations and instructs Bernhardt to direct the coordination and implementation among bureaus. In the memo, Zinke states he is “particularly interested in assisting the States in setting Sage-Grouse population objectives to improve management of the species” and that scientific research should be enhanced.

In response to the release of the Report, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead (R) released a statement echoing the concerns he has expressed throughout the review process. Mead previously sent a letter in May alongside Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), co-chairs of SGTF, requesting the Secretary work with SGTF and cautioning against the practice of setting state-specific population objectives.

Next steps outlined in the Report address short term and longer term options moving forward. Following submission of the Report, the Review Team recommends beginning outreach efforts in coordination with SGTF as soon as practicable. These outreach efforts would include discussions with stakeholders — Congressional delegations, tribes, landowners, conservation organizations, among other interested parties — and evaluation of recommendations made in the report along with identification of any additional issues or recommendations. Some of these recommendations may take years to implement, particularly those that relate to revisions or amendments to management plans. The Review Team plans to meet again with SGTF later this year to review input from partners and make further adjustments to the Report’s recommendations.

Jamila Blake is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Wildlife Policy and Programs team. Read more of Jamila's articles here.