Forest Service

Sage-grouse decision: Not warranted (Links)

 Posted by on September 22, 2015
Sep 222015

The Interior Department announced the decision, ahead of a formal announcement and press conference in Colorado at noon ET (10 MT). (click the link to go to a video announcement.) DOI sage-grouse pageDOI release  |  NRCS release

More links (and scroll down for releases from National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife)

National Audubon Society press release

The Greater Sage-Grouse Will Avoid “Endangered” Status Due to Herculean Land Conservation Effort

Following Unprecedented Collaboration, Sagebrush Ecosystem Begins Path to Recovery

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (September 22, 2015)—Today, the Department of the Interior announced that Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections are not warranted for the Greater Sage-Grouse, an impeccably-camouflaged, robust bird that has danced its way into hearts across the American West even as its numbers have dropped from over 16 million to between 200,000 and 500,000. Currently, conservation plans for the sage-grouse include commitments from federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, state wildlife agencies and private landowners. Commitments range from the investment of nearly $500 million to protect and restore 4.4 million acres of habitat that sits on over 1,100 private properties to protections on 65 million acres of sage-grouse habitat on BLM land.

“This is a new lease on life for the Greater Sage-Grouse and the entire sagebrush ecosystem,” said National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold (@david_yarnold). “Unprecedented cooperation by private landowners, states, and the federal government has created a framework for conservation at a scale unique in the world. Finding a shared path forward beats scaring all the stakeholders into their corners. Of course, now all of these stakeholders have to fulfill their commitments in order to make today’s decision stick.”

Faced with an endangered listing for the bird, stakeholders came to the table to develop a conservation strategy deemed strong enough by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stave off ESA protections and keep the bird’s recovery dependent on the current plans.

“The Greater Sage-Grouse indicates the health of the entire sagebrush ecosystem and the Western way of life,” said Brian Rutledge, VP and Central Flyway policy advisor for Audubon. “During this process we have learned to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, and we have arrived at a good plan for both people and wildlife.”

Audubon has worked with key state and federal officials to get to today’s historic announcement. From serving on the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team, which resulted in the state’s strategy of protecting core habitat becoming a model emulated across the rest of the bird’s range, to partnering with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which helps private landowners implement sage-grouse protections on their property, Audubon has effectively demonstrated a commitment to protect and restore a long-undervalued ecosystem.

“We achieve more when we work together, and today’s decision not to list the Greater Sage-Grouse proves the power in partnerships," NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. “With the support of partners like the Audubon Society, we have been able to help ranchers implement conservation strategies that improve sagebrush ecosystems, reduce risks to sage-grouse and keep working lands for working. We’re grateful to Audubon for their contributions in this successful wildlife conservation effort and look forward to continued partnership to drive conservation on working lands.”

In addition to the decision on the sage-grouse and integral to its conservation, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed into the federal record of decision, 14 Regional Management Plans put forth by the BLM earlier this year. The plans represent a key part of the federal government’s role in sage-grouse recovery, and include approximately 65 million acres of sage-grouse habitat that sits on federally controlled land.

“With the BLM plans now officially in place, we finally have science-based regulatory assurance from the federal government in protecting 65 million acres of sage-grouse habitat on public lands,” said Rutledge. “Now that all major players have skin in the game, we can move forward to protect a landscape that’s home to not only this iconic bird but also 350 additional species of plants and animals—and people who have lived here for generations too.”

To learn more about this bird, its habitat and Audubon’s work on its conservation, please visit www.audubon.org/sage-grouse.

The National Audubon Society saves birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at www.audubon.org and @audubonsociety.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology (9/22/15)

Statement by Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick on the USFWS decision not to list the Greater Sage-Grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act

Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision not to grant Endangered Species Act protection to the Greater Sage-Grouse. The U.S. Department of the Interior also finalized the range-wide strategy (in the form of several Environmental Impact Statements) for sage-grouse habitat on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands in 10 western states. These decisions come after about a decade of cooperative conservation work and unprecedented coalitions among state and federal agencies, conservationists, energy companies, and private ranchers. States have invested more than $200 million in sage-grouse, and the federal government has invested $300 million—with another $200 million on the way.

Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says:

“This decision by USFWS is an important milestone in the history of the Endangered Species Act. It shows how the Act can be effective, not only when it calls for emergency regulations to save a species, but also as an incentive for governments, conservation groups, and private landowners to collaborate towards conserving a species before its populations become critically endangered. To all of those in the West who are working together, amidst so much controversy, to preempt a listing through proactive conservation, we say, ‘Great progress so far–please stay the course.’

“Lawsuits may fly from both sides of the debate over sage-grouse conservation. But today we welcome this huge opportunity for science-based conservation groups to partner with federal and state governments as well as the ranching community to measure the effectiveness of management plans across all 11 sage-grouse states. We need to highlight the successes, and call out the shortcomings, always paying strict attention to demonstrable biological facts. For this reason, dedicated and intensive monitoring will be absolutely imperative in following through on the promise of today’s USFWS decisions.

“The Cornell Lab of Ornithology stands ready to assist sage-grouse conservation efforts with all of our information science resources. Besides the obvious role of dedicated professional biologists in population monitoring, the coming decade provides a huge opportunity for citizen-scientists to contribute. For example, birders can seek out sage-grouse and other sagebrush bird species in all seasons and enter their sightings into eBird.

“The challenge now is to document how sage-grouse populations respond to management plans in both breeding and wintering areas, to make course corrections on habitat protection where necessary, and to structure dedicated resources for the long-term, as this is sure to be a decades-long effort. Today’s ESA decision isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of a phase requiring less arguing and even more doing. No doubt these management plans aren’t perfect, but they do provide a solid base for everyone to move forward boldly on behalf of sagebrush and sage-grouse conservation.

“In addition to monitoring, dire need exists for funding research into how to restore degraded habitats in the West, not just for the benefit of Greater Sage-Grouse but also for the other 350 species that rely on the Sagebrush Steppe. Simply restricting development in key areas will help, but we also need to revitalize native plant communities so we can restore the carrying capacity of the lands we’ve protected for sage-grouse.

“Finally, I hope that in all our discussions about sage-grouse in the coming months, we respect today’s decision as a victory for private landowners. Courageous ranchers throughout the range of the species have welcomed Greater Sage-Grouse onto their properties, embracing the idea that this uniquely spectacular bird can coexist with economically viable private land use. Today’s decision underscores the continuing opportunity for landowners to take advantage of incentives and benefits for sage-grouse conservation on private land. I hope we are entering a new era in which collaborative conservation for a potentially endangered species is considered to be a financial opportunity for private landowners.”


WildEarth Guardians

For Immediate Release September 22, 2015


Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist, WildEarth Guardians, (307) 399-7910

Feds Fail Sage Grouse

Endangered Species Act Protections Denied; Land Use Plans a Huge Lost Opportunity

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After years of delay, today the federal government denied much needed Endangered Species Act protections to the imperiled greater sage grouse. The decision was coupled with the release of final land management plans aimed at protecting imperiled grouse populations across 10 western states. Instead of ensuring a future for the greater sage grouse, however, the final plans are replete with crippling flaws and loopholes rendering them inadequate to address threats from industrial development, livestock grazing, and invasive weeds.

“The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” Like other politicians before her, today Secretary Jewell declared victory before the battle is actually won,” said Erik Molvar wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The government’s plans fall far short of ensuring this iconic, imperiled bird is protected from the serious threats posed by fossil fuel extraction, grazing and development.”

In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management assembled a team of sage grouse experts to draft a science-based blueprint for protection measures necessary to protect and recover sage grouse populations. In 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assembled state officials to determine what areas were “essential” for sage grouse persistence designate them as ‘Priority Areas for Conservation.’ In the end, the new federal plan amendments ignore both sets of recommendations and adopt conservation measures far weaker over a geography of designated Priority Habitats far smaller than those proposed by expert scientists.

“The sage grouse planning effort began with great ideas and sound science, but what came out the other end of the sausage grinder is a weak collection of compromises that will not and cannot conserve the species,” said Molvar. “Sage grouse are facing real and imminent threats from fossil fuel production and inappropriate livestock grazing, and the birds need mandatory, science-based solutions if we have any hope to reverse more than 100 years of declines.”

The federal plans suffer from four crippling flaws:

  • Some 16 million acres of Priority Areas for Conservation were stripped from the final Priority Habitats designated in the new federal plan amendments. As detailed in a GIS analysis by WildEarth Guardians, Nevada was left with tiny fragments of Priority Habitat in its federal plan, about half of what the state itself originally proposed for protection.
  • Federal experts reviewed the science and recommended closing Priority Habitats to future leasing for oil and gas drilling, but instead these most sensitive sage grouse habitats were re-opened to leasing after years of a moratorium on leasing.
  • Priority Habitat protections from oil and gas drilling are much weaker in Wyoming than any other state, despite the fact that Wyoming faces the greatest threats from drilling and more than 40% of the worldwide sage grouse habitat is in this state.
  • Virtually all sage grouse protections in the new plans come with the option for exceptions and waivers, loopholes that have been abused in the past to the detriment of sage grouse.

Any one of these problems is serious enough to undermine efforts to maintain and recover sage grouse populations, and makes listing under the Endangered Species Act more necessary.

Over half of the remaining sage grouse populations are on federal lands, making the decision to withhold adequate protections on BLM and Forest Service administered public lands a key failure preventing a finding that ‘adequate regulatory mechanisms’ exist to protect the birds and avoid an ESA listing. Sage grouse populations are down 27% from 2010 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally determined the sage grouse warranted ESA protections. At that time the Service found those protections were precluded by other priorities. Industrial projects and oil and gas leasing, which were largely on hold over the past six years while federal sage grouse plans were being developed, will now move forward. Drilling will now resume in grouse habitat under the new, weak plans.

“In the final sage grouse plans, the Obama administration threw science out the window in favor of political expediency,” said Molvar.  “Strong, science-based plans could have neutralized the serious threats that sage grouse are facing, but instead we have weak plans that cannot justify the decision to deny Endangered Species Act protections.”


Defenders of Wildlife


September 22, 2015

Contact: Courtney Sexton; csexton@defenders.org, 202-772-0253

Landmark Decisions Fall Short of Conserving Sage-Grouse
Despite improvements, final plans inconsistent with government’s own “best available science”
as listing is taken off the table

WASHINGTON, DC — Today Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced sweeping decisions with far-reaching consequences for the imperiled greater sage-grouse, the Sagebrush Sea and hundreds of fish and wildlife that depend on this vital landscape.

The Obama administration announced the conclusion of a four-year federal land use planning process designed to implement a National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, an unprecedented effort to improve the management of more than 60 million acres of the Sagebrush Sea. Today’s announcement involved the completion of final decision documents for 14 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service conservation plans for the sage-grouse, a species that occurs on millions of acres of public lands throughout the American West. The planning effort recognized the importance of conserving large expanses of sagebrush grasslands for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, designating tens of millions of acres as priority habitat on federal lands, including approximately 13 million acres of Sagebrush Focal Areas. Though the final plans will result in the general improvement in management of the covered lands, they failed to incorporate key prescriptions identified by the government’s own scientists as necessary for the long-term conservation and recovery of the grouse.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that the greater sage-grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a decision based largely on the final federal land use plans. Current advanced scientific understanding of the species, combined with the inadequacy of the plans to protect and restore the sage-grouse, undermines the Service’s decision not to list the bird under the ESA.

The following is a statement from Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife:

“We commend the administration’s unprecedented and epic land use planning process covering millions of acres of public lands throughout the American West, but the final plans fall short of what is necessary to eliminate known threats to the greater sage-grouse. While the final federal sage-grouse plans advance wildlife management on millions of acres of public lands, they failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat.

“Listing decisions under the ESA must be based upon the best available science and specific listing criteria, including the adequacy of regulatory mechanisms to address ongoing threats and support long-term conservation and recovery of imperiled species. In this case, the shortcomings of the federal sage-grouse conservation plans and a lack of regulatory certainty are contrary to and undermine the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the species no longer warrants protection under the ESA.”

Westerners love their sage-grouse and, like the majority of Americans, support land management that does not sacrifice our rich fish and wildlife heritage for short-term profits from unsustainable land use and development. They also support decisive action to save the sage-grouse—including listing the bird under the ESA—to prevent the species from becoming extinct. The fate of the sage-grouse, and hundreds of other species, is linked to the future of the Sagebrush Sea. More still needs to be done to ensure the bird’s long-term survival on this fragile and vital landscape.”

# # #


The iconic greater sage-grouse once ranged across 297 million acres in North America and numbered as many as 16 million birds. Today, greater sage-grouse range has been reduced by nearly half and populations have experienced long-term declines. Sage-grouse require large expanses of healthy sagebrush steppe, an increasingly rare habitat in the West. Millions of acres of the Sagebrush Sea have been lost to agriculture and development over the past 200 years. What remains is fragmented and degraded by poorly managed oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, min­ing, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipe­lines and utility corridors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined greater sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010, and committed to consider the bird for listing by this month. This date certain prompted federal agencies, states and counties to initiate a multitude of planning processes to implement new conservation measures to conserve sage-grouse on millions of acres in the west with the hope of averting the need to list the species. The shortcomings of the final plans coupled with recent demographic information and the latest research published by the U.S. Geological Survey on the plight of sage-grouse, are a blunt reminder that strong, science-based conservation measures—and  listing under the Endangered Species Act are necessary at this time to protect the species.


Sep 162015

The Forest Service must take another look at a mining project it approved in the Coronado National Forest, following a federal judge's decision that found the service improperly excluded the project from NEPA review (Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Forest Service, 14-2446-TUC-RM, D. Ariz.).

The now-postponed Sunnyside Project, proposed by Regal Resources, would involve "six temporary drill sites to assess copper mineralization," U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez said in her order, issued yesterday (Sept. 15).

"USFS’s determination that the project can be completed in one year or less is unsupported by the record. Therefore, USFS’s approval of the project using the categorical exclusion for short-term mineral explorations pursuant to 36 C.F.R. § 220.6(e)(8) was arbitrary and capricious," she said.

The service had approved the project in April after consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service and concluding that the project would not adversely affect endangered species, including the western yellow-billed cuckoo. The plaintiffs, including the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, filed a supplemental complaint that dropped the ESA claims.

It turned out that NEPA was enough.

"The decision authorized Regal Resources to run its drill rigs for at least five months in sensitive endangered species’ habitat," Defenders of Wildlife said in a news release announcing the judge's decision. "Loud mineral drilling operations and construction would occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week (using artificial lighting at night) with total project operations and reclamation lasting up to three years."

The Forest Service did not adequately explain why "potential effects to the Mexican spotted owl are certain to be environmentally insignificant," the judge said. "[T]he administrative record indicates that the effects of the Sunnyside Project’s nighttime lighting on the Mexican spotted owl are uncertain, and that negative effects on the owl from project noise can be anticipated in up to 26% of the owl’s non-breeding territory."

In addition, she said, "USFS’s determination that the Sunnyside Project will not have significant environmental effects is based in large part upon the anticipated ability of listed species, such as the ocelot and jaguar, to avoid the affected area during project activities. This basis for USFS’s determination is undermined by the [Forest Service's] revised Decision Memorandum’s failure to consider the Sunnyside Project’s cumulative effects in relation to other temporally and geographically similar mineral exploration projects."

Regarding cumulative impacts, the judge said, "While the ESA definition of cumulative effects ignores future federal actions (see 50 C.F.R. § 402.02), the broader NEPA definition looks to 'the incremental impact of the action when added to [all] other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions.' 40 C.F.R. § 1508.7. In relying upon the revised [Biological Assessment's] EPA [sic: Judge surely meant to write "ESA"] cumulative impact analysis, the revised Decision Memorandum failed to conduct a proper cumulative impact analysis under NEPA."

"[I]n finding that the Sunnyside Project was not likely to adversely affect listed species, USFS and USFWS relied heavily on the project’s limited temporal and geographic scope. The record indicates that the Hermosa Project will have similar  environmental effects as the Sunnyside Project, meaning the environmental disturbances from the projects will exist over a larger geographical area and a larger temporal timeframe than that analyzed in the revised Decision Memorandum. Even if the projects will not temporally overlap, USFS has not shown that its failure to analyze the cumulative impact of the Sunnyside and Hermosa projects clearly had no bearing on its conclusion that the Sunnyside Project would not have cumulatively significant environmental effects."

USFS also "failed to clearly show" that the two projects won't occur at the same time. The Hermosa Project is due to start in November.

"The argument that the Sunnyside Project and the Hermosa Project will have no cumulative impacts because they will not temporally overlap is a post hoc rationalization unsupported by the information available to USFS at the time it issued its revised Decision Memorandum," Márquez  wrote.


Jun 152015

For more Federal Register notices on the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act, go to http://www.eswr.com/fr-today The Fish and Wildlife Service has begun a “scoping period” on an Environmental Impact Statement that will examine a plan to issue Incidental Take Permits under a Midwest Wind Energy MultiSpecies Habitat Conservation Plan that is being prepared. The […]

Apr 282015

A coalition of “timber, ranching, and forest recreation industries” lack standing to challenge the Forest Service’s 2012 planning rule, a federal judge has ruled (Federal Forest Resource Coalition v. Vilsack, 12-1333 KBJ, D.D.C.). “Plaintiffs have failed to show that the 2012 Planning Rule threatens an injury-in-fact that is imminent, or particularized. Moreover, because the injuries […]

Apr 272015

Press release Forest Service info on the Tennessee Creek Vegetation Management Project Conservation groups, concerned about the effects of a logging project on lynx denning habitat, have filed suit against the Forest Service in Colorado (WildEarth Guardians v. Conner, 15-858, D. Colo.). The defendant is Tamara Conner, District Ranger of the Leadville Ranger District in […]

Apr 062015
Enviros blast mining in Colorado, bridge replacement in California

Environmental groups are harshly criticizing a move by the Forest Service to reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule, which the service said would “allow for temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in a 19,100-acre area defined as the North Fork Coal Mining Area.” The […]

Mar 162015

Let’s not do the Time Warp again. That was the message from U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, who said on March 11 that the Forest Service did not rely on the best available science when it updated its travel management plan (Friends of the Clearwater v. U.S. Forest Service, 13-515 EJL, D. Idaho). A press […]

Mar 032015

Forest Service will prepare EIS on a proposal to designate over-snow vehicle (OSV) use on National Forest System roads, National Forest System trails, and areas on National Forest System lands within the Eldorado National Forest; and to identify snow trails for grooming. In addition, FS proposes to: (1) formally adopt California State Parks’ Off-Highway Motor […]

Feb 272015

Video of oral argument | Audio (2/5/15) The Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dissolution of an injunction in a challenge to the Grizzly Project on the Kootenai National Forest (Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR) v. Bradford, 13-35768). In an unpublished decision, the court found that U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy was justified […]

Feb 182015

The Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court decision that upheld the Forest Service’s approval of a small fuels treatment/commercial timber harvest project on the Umatilla National Forest (The Lands Council v. U.S. Forest Service, 14-35176). (South George Vegetation and Fuels Management Project) The brief, unpublished decision rejected claims brought under the National Forest Management Act […]