The Sage Grouse Story, A More Complete View: I. Not All About Trump

Credit: Scott Root, Utah DWR, courtesy of Intermountain West Joint Venture

The Center for Western Priorities sent this out in their newsletter this morning:

The Trump administration released more details on its updated sage-grouse management plan. The previous plan, created in 2015, was a collaborative effort between a variety of stakeholders, from industry to environmentalists. As a result, it was popular throughout the West, with two-thirds of Westerners opposing changes to it.

Conservation of the sage-grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem is vital as industry encroaches on the habitat. In response to the changes to the management plan, a letter written by a collection of scientists stated, “failure to take into account large-scale dynamics when managing sage-grouse will likely lead to an overall loss in habitat quantity and quality resulting in population declines.” Sage-grouse populations have declined for the third consecutive year, with 2019 marking the lowest year since tracking began in 2011.

The link to the scientist letter went to this interesting WyoFile story, but I didn’t see a link to a scientist letter (can someone help and check this? if it’s not just me, I’ll contact them and ask).

I’m going to tell the story of my efforts to arrive at an even-handed description of the sage grouse saga. The CWP mention above simply fits it into the usual Bad Trump Administration overrules Good Obama Administration narrative. One of the many problems with seeing things through this partisan filter is that you miss much of the depth and complexity, not to speak of the contributions of people- state employees, feds, landowners, and so on, who do all the proverbial “grunt work” working with each other, jointly figuring things out, discussing the implications of scientific information, and so on. Of which there were a great many folks, who did this for a long time, for the sage grouse, and are still doing it. Also, it underplays the contributions and intricate political processes and choices at the state and federal levels which are of interest.

My instinctive hairs first went up when changes to the 2015 plan were portrayed as an R vs. D thing. At the same time, I saw stories that D Governors, including Colorado’s supported some changes.. see in this BLM pres release.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval also supported the BLM’s effort to incorporate state feedback, noting “The State of Nevada is pleased the final EIS is finished. We appreciate the opportunity to have worked closely with the Department of the Interior on our concerns, and thank them for incorporating our input into the final plan amendments.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown: “Collaboration is hard work, and I appreciate the efforts by our stakeholders, state agencies and the Department of the Interior to craft an agreement to protect the sage grouse. Balancing sage grouse habitat protection and economic development requires mitigation of negative impacts. This agreement is a critical step that marks a shift away from planning toward active conservation and landscape management to protect this iconic species. Oregon’s bounty is beautiful and worth continuing to protect and fight for.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: “We worked with the Bureau of Land Management and our stakeholders to produce a plan that maintains protection for the sage grouse while balancing the potential impact on local economies. This is a significant step that closes out the planning phase and allows us to begin to see the true conservation efforts that safeguard the sage grouse in Colorado.”

So what was the “real” story? Can we even capture that, as opposed to bits and pieces of information from peoples’ different experiences at different levels? When I attended the Western Governors’ Association Working Lands Roundtable in April, I attended a work session on At Risk Species Conservation and spoke to some people there about their experiences with the sage grouse effort. I even asked a nice WGA staff person “is there an article that presents the history of the sage grouse issue fairly?” so that I could post it on The Smokey Wire. He didn’t know of any, but referred me to a person who might be a good source, if I wanted to hear a balanced perspective. So I spoke with him. More on what I found out in my next post. If any of you have found an even-handed representation, please post a link in the comments.

14 thoughts on “The Sage Grouse Story, A More Complete View: I. Not All About Trump”

  1. After 5 years of intensive Sage Grouse study in my home valley (i.e. net trapping at night, tagging and re-trapping young ) we just aren’t seeing many Sage Grouse anywhere near their previous numbers. Maybe it is time to leave these birds alone and focus on habitat. Expensive, redundant studies camouflaged as original, are only hurting the species IMHO.

    • I’ve always wondered that about seemingly intrusive animal or bird- disturbing studies as well. Too bad there’s not an “endangered species review” like a Human Subjects review, that would provide a check on potential harm and redundancy.

      On the other hand, providing more habitat might not help if there’s another issue going on.

  2. If sage grouse were listed as an endangered species, it would be illegal to “harm” them without permission supported by analysis and buy-in by the listing agency.

    From the Fish and Wildlife Service (2015): “The most significant threat to the species is habitat loss and fragmentation due to a variety of causes.

    In the Rocky Mountain portion of the range, sagebrush habitats have become increasing degraded and fragmented due to fossil fuel and renewable energy development, infrastructure such as roads and power lines, mining, improper grazing, the direct conversion of sagebrush to croplands, and by urban and ex-urban development.

    In the Great Basin, incursions of invasive plants such as cheatgrass and conifer, increases in wildfire size, frequency and intensity fueled by invasive plants, along with improper grazing from domestic livestock and free-roaming horses and burros, drought, and mining have eliminated the habitat and degraded the value of large areas of sagebrush habitat for greater sage-grouse. The threat of habitat loss to fire and invasive species can be exacerbated by even small amounts of development in important habitat.”

    • But I remember researchers doing scientific studies with spotted owls that seemed kind of disruptive (to a non-expert).

  3. jon, that all may be true but doing harassing, duplicated studies certainly doesn’t help prop up populations. I am just saying what many of us are seeing in our area Leks.

  4. Jon, that all may be true. I am just saying in our area of Leks the decline isn’t any of those things, as the landscape here is quite stable as far as use goes. The only difference in 5 years is this study, which seems to be impacting populations. No proof, just locals observations. Biased maybe?

    • I hope you provide some input on that to the Fish and Wildlife Service for their new listing process; I think it’s a safe assumption that, since the species stayed off the ESA list because of the BLM and Forest Service plans, that there will be a new petition to list the species after these plans are changed to reduce protective measures. (Currently, your beef would be with the state, assuming it is authorizing the study.)

  5. I am far from a sage grouse expert, but the pattern of D “position” vs. R “position” bears all the similar markings of choices made for other at-risk species — spotted owl, grizz, lynx, salmon, wolf, etc. History is clear: recent R administrations (post-1980) have consistently tilted in favor of commercial interests, and D toward science and env. So, when a D adm comes up with a 2015 plan, and is succeeded by an R adm (as in this case), color me highly suspicious. Any effort to revise the plan is intended to benefit industry and commerce at the expense of species conservation. As for the “notorious” Roadless Area Conservation rule (which I helped author), subsequent state efforts in CO, and ID, (now AK) altered the rule to help ski industry, coal, phosphate, and timber industry.
    Thus, I can agree that it’s not all about Trump (in fact he likely could care less about sage grouse; probably has not even heard of them), but it is all about his minions that populate Ag and Interior and CEQ, and industry interventionists who make it their business to lessen sage grouse protections.

  6. Jim, I’ll agree that generally what you say is true, but my experience is that it’s much more complicated than that. For example, while you were working on Roadless, I was working on biotechnology regulation in the Clinton Administration. At the end of the day we visited the head of CEQ and he said no to our suggested tightening of the regulations. So apparently some commercial efforts were OK. I was the science lead of the group and so it could be argued that they were not using the best science (of course, scientists disagreed among themselves but that was our consensus).

    Similarly, certain industries, e.g. public lands recreation, marijuana, solar, wind and so on tend to be supported by D administrations, even though they all have environmental, and some have health effects. In fact, I first met Harris Sherman (Undersecretary Obama administration) when he was working for the ski industry.

    As to the Colorado Roadless Rule, I worked on that from 2005-2011 we started out with Bush and Rohmer, but by the end the Rule came out under Hickenlooper and Obama. Yes, it incorporated changes next to ski areas and methane drainage wells for an underground coal mine, but it also added more total acres to roadless, and removed roaded acres from the inventory. At the end of the day, I think adding 400K acres is ultimately more protective than 2001, which is why it made it through D and R administrations.

    Here’s a link to the press release:

    “The rule conserves 4.2 million acres of pristine backcountry in Colorado’s eight National
    Forests, nearly 400,000 more acres than the 2001 Roadless Rule it replaces. Importantly, the Colorado Rule provides significantly increased protection for 1.2 million acres of high-quality roadless acres. In return for additional protections, the Colorado Roadless Rule provides flexibility for potential expansion of ski areas on about 8,000 acres and for temporary road construction and placement of methane vents associated with underground coal mining on about 19,700 acres in the North Fork Coal Mining Area.
    The Final Rule announced today reinstates the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception as written in the 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule, and will apply to about 19,700 acres (about 0.5% of Colorado roadless area). ”

    I’ve worked with good and annoying political appointees from both sides of the aisle and I don’t think it’s fair to tar folks with a broad brush. For example, Jim Hubbard, does not deserve the term “minion” IMHO. Did that make Jim Lyons, say, a minion of Bill Clinton? I thought not.

  7. I think there is some false equivalency here. Are recreation, marijuana, solar and wind industries the same in scope and impacts as oil and gas (giving appropriate weight to global warming)?

    Are the sage-grouse amendments the same as the roadless rule? I don’t think so. The process of state amendments looks kind of the same for sage-grouse, but it was driven range-wide by the new Trump Administration. Also the original sage-grouse amendments were driven by the need to avoid listing under ESA and science played a much more obvious role than for roadless areas. The purpose of the revised sage-grouse amendments is “to incorporate new information to improve the clarity, efficiency, and implementation of the 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse (GRSG) Plan Amendments, including better alignment with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state plans, in order to benefit GRSG conservation at the landscape scale.” It just a little hard to believe that the science changed so much between 2015 and 2017 to warrant this kind of effort. It was just a change of politics. (What I read in the D governors’ comments is “I’m glad we’re done with the politics so we can get on with fixing the problem.”)

  8. Sharon: as to “minions” — on a scale of 1-10 I’d place Lyons and Hubbard about the same place. I’d describe neither as “servile” but they both know how to bow to power. As do I. Most high level operatives do. I recall JWT saying he had about 6 silver bullets and had to choose wisely when to use them. Even he went along to get along most of the time. I never worked for Hubbard, but I’ll say this about Lyons: when we had disagreements, he gave me a lot of air time and thoughtfully described reasons for his actions. But I convinced him to change on several occasions. Don’t get me started on Tenney. So yeah, Lyons had some respect, Tenney did not. And that had much less to do with personality than politics. But I tried to keep it real about appropriate land mgmt with both.

    • Jim, thanks for engaging on this. I think it would not surprise anyone that my experiences with each of these individuals were different from yours. I found myself not disrespecting anyone due to their politics, more about how they treated career staff (including me).

      Since JWT wrote a journal describing his interactions with Lyons and others, the cats are out of the proverbial bag. Perhaps you’d like to write a post something “5 worst interactions I had with politicals and why” or “Five best,” or both.. After all, an election is coming up and we could send new appointees a Smokey Wire Transition Package on how to not be unnecessarily annoying to career staff…


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