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Feds to take new look at protections for dwindling grouse species

In most major land habitats, the abundance of native species, including plants, declined by at least 20 percent. Sage grouse are a prime example in the American West, where their habitat decreased by almost a half since 1960. (Bob Wick/BLM)

(CN) — The Biden administration announced plans on Friday to consider extending protections for a declining type of grouse found in the U.S. West.

The Bureau of Land Management said it is starting a process to consider further protections for the greater sage grouse, a western game bird species suffering from critical habitat loss. 

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey found this year that sage grouse numbers are down 65% from 1986.

The BLM attributes the chicken-sized bird’s decline to a variety of environmental pressures including development, invasive grasses, wildfire and drought made worse by climate change. 

“Safeguarding sagebrush habitat is considered essential to the long-term health of sage-grouse populations as well as more than 350 other species,” the agency said in Friday’s announcement.

The Biden administration plans to look at new scientific information on the impacts of climate change and other factors and update plans to manage the bird’s shrinking habitat. 

“The BLM is committed to reversing long-term downward trends in sage-grouse populations and habitats in a manner that fulfills our multiple-use and sustained yield mission and meets the needs of Western communities,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said Friday.

The move could result in the implementation of sagebrush habitat management plans that were originally put in place under the Obama administration in 2015, when President Joe Biden was vice president. 

As part of his term-long campaign to undo conservation efforts, then-President Donald Trump amended the habitat plans in 2019 to limit restrictions that could be placed upon the oil and gas industry. 

Fighting against conservationists to open up the use of public lands to development, he tried to ease rules on activities like mining and drilling throughout millions of acres in seven Western states.

A federal judge in Boise, Idaho, blocked Trump’s changes in 2019.

One of the original 2015 restrictions, all of which faced pushback from industry giants, designated buffer zones around sage grouse breeding areas where drilling would be banned.

“The 2015 plans established a solid foundation, but actions during the previous administration kept those plans from being put into action,” Stone-Manning said. “As we move to build upon the earlier plans, we are asking whether there are other steps we should take given new science to improve outcomes for sage-grouse and also for people in communities across the west who rely on a healthy sagebrush steppe.”

As the Biden administration aggressively moves to restore environmental safeguards tossed out by Trump, state BLM offices are reconsidering oil and gas lease agreements. 

For example, the BLM of Wyoming initially planned to begin sales of oil and gas leases for 459 parcels of land in March and June. However, it decreased the offer earlier this month following an environmental review that found 260 parcels, or 382,882 acres, were in priority habitat management areas for greater sage grouse. 

The state BLM office announced earlier this week that it plans to move forward with leasing only 195 parcels, or 17,9001 acres, beginning in 2022. 

A national BLM proposal is also underway to stop mining on public and National Forest System lands in certain sagebrush areas.

“We remain dedicated to working closely with states, local governments, tribes and other partners who have worked in a collaborative and bipartisan fashion for more than a decade toward sustainable and balanced management of sagebrush habitat,” Stone-Manning said Friday.