The Government Just Released A Plan To Protect The Greater Sage Grouse. Here’s Why You Should Care.

CREDIT: Jeannie Stafford/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP

The Department of the Interior Thursday released a long-awaited plan to protect the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that was once ubiquitous across the American West but that has seen its numbers plummet as the region’s open sagebrush lands have been lost to energy development, grazing, and catastrophic wildfires.

The sage grouse’s U.S. population totaled about 16 million 100 years ago — now, the numbers ring in as low as 150,000. With the greater sage grouse’s already dwindling populations falling an additional 55 percent between 2007 and 2013, western states and federal land management agencies have been scrambling to develop land management plans that reduce development pressures on the bird’s habitat and reverse the decline of the species.

The decade-long efforts of western governors, private landowners, and the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture are in part aimed at avoiding the need to formally protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make in September based on sage grouse population levels and the adequacy of existing protections.

The land management plan released Thursday by the Obama administration will guide conservation and development on approximately 70 million acres of national public lands, which contain the majority of the greater sage grouse’s remaining habitat. This effort has been described as “the largest landscape-level conservation effort ever undertaken by the Bureau of Land Management, the nation’s largest land manager.”

Here are the three things you should know about the administration’s plan to protect the greater sage grouse:

The sage grouse isn’t the only species that will benefit from the plan

Pronghorn antelope stand with a sage grouse.

Pronghorn antelope stand with a sage grouse.

CREDIT: wikimedia commons

The plan increases protections on more than 40 million acres of public lands, and in particular on 16.5 million acres which are set aside as sagebrush “focal areas” that are off-limits to all future oil and gas development.

Unveiling the plan, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that the steps her agency is taking to protect the sage grouse are “grounded in the best science” and “we are confident that these plans address the main threats to the bird and its habitat.”

The plan aims to protect the habitat of more than 350 other species in addition to the sage grouse, such as the iconic pronghorn, golden eagles, elk, and mule deer. Environmental groups, ranchers, sportsmen, members of Congress, and others praised the release of the plan and the coordination efforts.

“It has been impressive and downright inspiring to see the [Bureau of Land Management] engaging in true landscape level planning focused on the need for conservation as part of managing public lands,” said Nada Culver, senior director for agency policy at the Wilderness Society, in a press release.

In addition to protecting habitat from future oil and gas drilling, the plan identifies buffer zones around sage grouse breeding areas and minimizes surface disturbance on more than 43 million acres of public lands by encouraging the use of new technologies.

The plan is a product of years of work with western states

A male sage grouse during a lek, an event in which a group of males come together and put on mating displays for females.

A male sage grouse during a lek, an event in which a group of males come together and put on mating displays for females.

CREDIT: shutterstock

Almost 70 million acres of sage grouse habitat cover public lands across 11 western states managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. For more than a decade, federal agencies have worked with state governments, and key stakeholders such as ranchers, sportsmen, local businesses and the oil and gas industry to ensure a balance between competing interests.

Jewell was joined by Wyoming Governor Matt Mead (R) announcing the plan Thursday. Mead emphasized that the federal agencies had done an “extraordinary job” and said that “this is not just about the sage grouse, it’s about the habitat; it’s about the West.”

The oil and gas industry will likely ramp up its attacks on sage grouse protections

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Despite significant bipartisan support for the administration’s next steps, the oil and gas industry and its allies are escalating attacks on western communities’ efforts to conserve the greater sage grouse and the open lands it inhabits. As reported by the New York Times last week, the industry, “led by such groups as the Western Energy Alliance, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance,” has “mobilized to try to prevent the Department of the Interior from barring large stretches of land as potential drilling sites over concern that drilling and fracking operations could harm the sage grouse.”

Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of the Western Energy Alliance, continued to push back on the plan to protect the sage grouse after Thursday’s announcement, telling Fuel Fix that “we believe the science doesn’t justify these restrictions.”

Additionally, a number of the oil and gas industry’s allies in Congress, including Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), have led legislative efforts to undermine the Endangered Species Act by exempting the greater sage grouse from protection for up to ten years. A letter from 26 conservation groups earlier this month said that Bishop’s proposal to delay listing and give management authority of sage grouse habitat to states would be “interrupting the ongoing conservation efforts” and “could further jeopardize the existence of the species.”

Now that Interior’s plan has been released, the agency will undergo a 60-day review to be finalized while the western states are also working to finalize their own conservation plans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until September 30, 2015 to make a final decision whether the federal and state plans to protect the greater sage grouse are sufficient to reverse the decline of the species, or whether the bird also needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive.

Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser.