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Biden administration proposes changes to sage grouse protections, including in Oregon and California

A male great western sage grouse.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A male great western sage grouse.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that new changes are on the table for protecting the unique bird that thrives in Eastern Oregon, California and other western states.

Greater sage grouse living on public lands could be in store for additional protections.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that new changes are on the table for protecting the unique bird that thrives in Eastern Oregon, northeastern California and other Western states..

Sage grouse thrive in sagebrush-covered plains. About half of their habitat falls within public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

In a public statement, the bureau said it needs to revisit sage grouse habitat because of increasing threats to the species’ survival.

The bureau has issued a draft amendment to its current sage grouse habitat management plans. It outlines several ways the agency could change how it manages sage grouse habitat across 10 Western states, including about 10 million acres in Oregon.

The public has until June 13 to comment on its draft amendment.

The amendment offers six potential routes it could take and explains their potential environmental impacts.

Each option offers different protections for sage grouse habitat. One option — which it calls a “no action” plan — is to do nothing and leave current protections as-is. All other routes offer different changes to protection boundaries, restrictions on livestock grazing and mineral leasing, and approaches to managing wild horse and burro populations.

The option offering the most protections proposes banning companies from getting new permits or leases for resource extraction across BLM’s sage grouse habitat. Oil and gas companies couldn’t get new leases to drill and drain underground fuels from these areas, and mining companies couldn’t get new permits for extracting minerals like lithium.

That could be bad news for companies eyeing one of the world’s largest lithium reserves along the Oregon-Nevada border.

In its draft amendment, BLM highlighted one option in particular as its favorite, saying it balances conservation with other public land uses, and that it posed fewer restrictions on resource developments. For example, oil and gas leasing and lithium mining would be less restricted, as would siting for solar panels or wind farms.

Multiple conservation groups took issue with that option, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect sage grouse.

“This shocking plan enshrines the same failed management approach as the prior plans,” said Randi Spivak, public lands policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a written statement. “The BLM knows what it should do to save these struggling birds yet this does virtually nothing to strengthen protections, ensuring the grouse will continue their downward spiral.”

Sarah Stellberg, attorney with Advocates for the West, said the BLM’s favored option significantly reduces buffers that stand between human development and sage grouse breeding grounds, called leks.

“Whereas the old plans had a lek buffer of 3 miles, that’s being reduced to 0.6 miles under the new proposal,” Stellberg said. “Which is a big loss for sage grouse because they really are very sensitive to human disturbance during their breeding season.”

Still, some other conservation groups celebrated BLM’s announcement of the sage grouse habitat options.

“They’ve been a long time coming,” said Mark Salvo, conservation director at Oregon Natural Desert Association. “We’re looking forward to engaging in this planning process in the coming weeks and months.”

Salvo said the BLM’s proposals are not enough to reverse decades of harm against the sage grouse, but they “have all the right tools” to help the species survive.

Sage grouse once roamed 13 states, feeding off sage leaves and dancing an elaborate courtship strut, but they now only occupy about half of their historic range. Like many vulnerable species, its survival is threatened by climate change and human developments, like livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, and agriculture.

Since the late 1960s, their numbers have declined by an average of 2.3% per year. Their populations once measured in the millions, but they now number fewer than 800,000. Despite these losses, federal protections for the greater sage grouse have not risen to “endangered” status. It is listed as a threatened species.
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a news host and regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.