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Greater sage-grouse skirts ESA listing; Questions remain

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Eric Petterson, Environmental Assessment

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceEven though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced on September 22 that the greater sage-grouse would not be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), questions still remain regarding how successful state-led efforts and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resource management plan changes will be in protecting the chicken-sized bird while not overburdening other potential land uses of the western United States. Many state and local governments, as well as other users of public lands, are further wondering if the land-use plan amendments issued by the BLM may be more onerous than the listing itself.

What happened?

In summary, the USFWS concluded that the greater sage-grouse does not meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species and does not warrant a protected listing. Therefore, the agency won’t dictate federal protection of the greater sage-grouse but will rely on states to find their own ways to increase the bird’s population. The USFWS will review how things are going in another five years.

As the primary land manager of sage-grouse habitats, the BLM was key in keeping the sage-grouse from being listed. The agency issued numerous land-use plan amendments that provides significant stipulations on any activities that may affect sage-grouse habitats across 67 million acres of BLM-managed lands throughout 11 western states.  These new stipulations include significant changes on how mining, oil and gas, renewable energy (wind, solar or geothermal), grazing, and recreation limits will be enforced. However, any activity that may affect sagebrush and sage-grouse habitats will now be carefully regulated by the BLM.

What does it mean?

The BLM’s land-use plan amendments place strict land-use limitations in sage-grouse habitats on activities that include the following:

  • Prohibiting most land-use activities within a mile or less (depending on the state’s plan) of leks (mating grounds)
  • Requiring new surface occupancy or no new impacts within sage-grouse habitats without in-kind habitat mitigation (no net loss to habitat) 
  • Requiring industrial sites (e.g., oil or gas pad sites) to be spaced no closer than one every square mile
  • Prohibiting drilling for three-and-a-half months each spring during breeding season

The reason for such restrictions is because human activities may cause sage-grouse breeding activities to stop or cause them to move further from human activities if these activities get too close to the birds. However, these stipulations are far more permissive than the three-mile buffer area around leks that scientists initially recommended for the ESA listing.

What’s next?

Over the next few months, scientists and state officials will continue to work through the nuances in the BLM’s land-use plans. In addition, legal recourse is being pursued by environmental groups (for saying the ruling doesn’t do enough to protect the greater sage-grouse) and also by industry, private land owners, and numerous state and local governments (for saying the land-use plans go too far).

How can Olsson help?

As reported previously, in places like Garfield County in western Colorado, the decisions made by the BLM and USFWS could have significant impacts on the community’s ability to make local decisions about land use. To prepare for the potential impacts of the BLM’s plans regarding the greater sage-grouse, Olsson Associates has been working with Garfield County to compile scientifically based and accurate data about the bird’s habitats through habitat modelling, which helps inform public policy regarding on-the-ground reality (in this case, about where greater sage-grouse habitat protection can be best applied). It’s a methodical process that includes several steps, including the following:

  • Conduct an in-depth review of scientific literature to develop the local “habitat criteria” needed for sage-grouse, as recent research has shown that various populations use habitat differently. Such criteria include vegetation, elevation, climate, terrain, and other variables.
  • Use geographic information system (GIS) data to examine and accurately map the actual habitat variables of the study site.
  • Complete “ground truthing” where scientists visit the study site to validate the GIS models with actual habitat and activity patterns of greater sage-grouse in the area.

The collected data is used in computerized, mathematical GIS models (including a habitat modelling technique called “fuzzy modeling”) that provide a more accurate habitat suitability index. The index indicates the level at which a species could successfully utilize a specific study area.

Olsson’s biological consulting and environmental permitting services can be helpful for the complex biological and regulatory issues that are occurring with greater sage-grouse, or to support an individual land-use permitting and planning effort. Olsson has completed habitat and species assessments of a variety of species for a wide range of industries. If listed species issues, regulatory guidance consulting, or environmental site suitability analysis can benefit your next project, please feel free to contact me at 970.309.5190 or epetterson@olssonassociates.com.

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