There is a lot of talk, in the media, on the Hill and among federal and state agencies, about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pending decision to protect the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Western states are anxious over the potential impact that listing the grouse as threatened or endangered would have on a multitude of land uses across the Sagebrush Sea. Industries question whether the species even warrants protection. And, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages more than half of remaining sage-grouse habitat, has embarked on an unprecedented conservation planning process in the hopes of forestalling a listing determination for the bird.
Unfortunately, much of the loud and rancorous debate over sage-grouse conservation misses the larger point. The greater sage-grouse is just the tip of the spear, the canary in the coal-mine – you pick the metaphor – its decline is an indicator of how we are managing to mismanage sagebrush grasslands. It’s not just greater-sage grouse that are in trouble; more than 350 other species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Likewise, many species that occur in other ecosystems managed by the BLM are also under consideration for protective listing, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, Sonoran desert tortoise, New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, Gunnison sage-grouse and a suite of endemic plants. The sheer volume of species in need of protection presents a logistical nightmare: if the BLM only focuses on conserving one species at a time, and only when species have declined to the point of needing Endangered Species Act protection, then the agency will be in constant crisis, and our ability to actually save imperiled species will be greatly reduced.
The case of the greater sage-grouse is a prime example of this predicament. Yet, in the current conservation planning process the BLM seems to be focusing only on how to better manage greater sage-grouse populations (and in our opinion, not doing so very successfully), without seeing the bigger picture that clearly points to a need to reevaluate the overall management of our public lands.
The BLM is a so-called “multiple-use” agency, and BLM lands are available for almost any use imaginable, from wildlife conservation to oil and gas development, renewable energy development, off-road vehicle use, mining, grazing, to Burning Man. Except where prohibited by Congress, the BLM has historically sought to accommodate all of these uses nearly everywhere on public lands.
Though the laws governing BLM and its multiple uses for public lands have only weak conservation standards, BLM is supposed to manage for “sustained yield,” and avoid “unnecessary and undue degradation” of natural resources, in addition to complying with environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. In other words, the BLM should be managing our public lands sustainably, so they can continue to provide benefits to the American people today, tomorrow and for future generations.
In order for this kind of sustainability to happen, the BLM must rethink its approach to management – from authorizing every use under the sun to sustainable landscape planning. Seeds of this (r)evolution are present. The agency recently released a policy statement regarding landscape-level planning to commit the agency to more forward-looking decisions based on better science, but implementation is largely up to field managers.
When the BLM completes its current round of plan revisions, amending over 80 of its land use plans at the cost of millions of dollars, will it have to turn around and do it all again to meet the conservation needs of the next imperiled species? Or will it use this wake-up call provided by the greater sage-grouse to do something bold and different?
Noah Matson, is Defenders’ Vice President of Landscape Conservation & Climate Adaptation