The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft recovery plan for the Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado and Utah. The Center for Biodiversity doesn’t like it, but more to the point, they like less how the BLM is managing Gunnison sage-grouse. More to the point because recovery plans are not mandatory, while federal land management plans can be – and plan components must be mandatory to be considered “regulatory” enough to carry much weight in ESA listing and delisting decisions. As the FWS said, “Establishing durable regulatory mechanisms that are binding and enforceable, such as revised land use planning amendments, will be important for recovery.”
The recovery plan comes on the heels of BLM decisions not to designate any Areas of Critical Environmental Concern for Gunnison sage-grouse in the Tres Rios and Uncompahgre Resource management plans, and to adopt inadequate safeguards for the birds’ habitat in recent land-use plans. For example, although the draft recovery plan calls on federal land-management agencies to improve their resource management plans and protect suitable habitat within four miles of breeding sites, the BLM’s August 2019 proposed resource plan for its Uncompahgre Field Office protects only habitats within 0.6 miles of breeding sites. The BLM admits this would “fall short of minimum protection standards to maintain sage-grouse viability.”
“Bringing the Gunnison sage-grouse back from the brink requires decisive and concerted action, but instead we have two federal agencies working against each other,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is urging federal land managers to improve protections for public-land habitat, but the BLM is moving in the opposite direction. This is a recipe for extinction for this beautiful bird. We’ll do everything possible to keep that from happening.”
The timing is also such that BLM plans were released prior to the draft recovery plan. That means that the BLM should start taking another look at how their plans address this species and take into account the new information and recommended measures. The same is true for the 10% of sage-grouse habitat that occurs on national forest lands. BLM is not subject to NFMA, so its obligation to maintain species viability to avoid listing under ESA is not as clear as for the Forest Service. Forest Service plans must “contribute to recovery” of listed species, so failure to address elements of this recovery plan when it is final should raise serious questions.
In addition to specific conservation measures like the four-mile buffers for breeding leks, the draft recovery plan provides some specific desired conditions that could be included in land management plans:
2. Regulatory mechanisms or other conservation plans or programs, such as land-use management plans, reduce and ameliorate threats associated with habitat loss and degradation in all populations, such that:
A. Habitat in Dove Creek is improved and maintained at a quantity calculated to support a HMC of 30, although this criterion is not measured by achieving the target HMC.
B. Habitat in CSCSM is maintained at a quantity calculated to support a HMC of 7, although this criterion is not measured by achieving the target HMC.
C. Habitat is improved and maintained in Gunnison Basin, San Miguel, Piñon Mesa, Crawford, and Monticello at a quantity calculated to support the target HMCs as listed in Table 1.
At a minimum, the land management agencies will need to explain how these plans contribute to meeting their requirements under ESA to manage their programs to promote recovery of listed species, which should include how they are implementing the final recovery plan.