The U.S. Department of Interior is formally revisiting greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) management plans this fall.
Within the next 60 days, the Bureau of Land Management will file a public scoping notice in the Federal Register to encourage public comment on the new planning process and address new information regarding the status of the sage-grouse.
In 2015, the Obama administration amended 98 land use plans for the BLM and U.S. Forest Service across 11 western states, covering 70 million acres of sage-grouse habitat. In the plans, they identified 10 million acres of specific “sagebrush focal areas” intended to identify critical habitat for the sage-grouse. With buy-in from a broad cross section of states and stakeholders, these amendments were intended to prevent the sage-grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. In September 2015, the USFWS determined the species’ potential listing was “not warranted,” in part due to these plans.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department filed a new status report in U.S. District Court stating that the Bureau of Land Management will reopen plans the agency first approved in 2015 and later revised in 2019.
In the 2019 revision, the Trump administration withdrew the land use restrictions designated by focal areas, significantly reducing habitat protections. The revision also increased flexibility for the BLM to permit oil and gas drilling and other activities on public lands previously designated as sage-grouse habitat.
Siding with environmental groups that challenged the 2019 revision in court, Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the District of Idaho issued a preliminary injunction to block the BLM from implementing the 2019 revised changes. The judge stated that the 2019 revisions lacked justification for the substantial reduction in protection for the sage-grouse and the 2015 plans were kept in place. Now, the BLM will revisit the previously reinstated 2015 plans.
Sage-grouse, found across sagebrush habitats, have been a source of controversy in western land management for decades. Reopening the planning process opens up the debate over how to best manage for sage-grouse survival without impacting other uses of BLM-administered land, such as energy development or recreation. The new review of the sage-grouse plans will likely include new information and data that has been collected since 2015, including recent U.S. Geological Survey studies that show sage-grouse populations have declined 40% since 2002.
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