By Matthew Brown
The Associated Press
BILLINGS, MONT. » The Biden administration on Friday said it will consider new measures to protect greater sage grouse, a bird species once found across much of the U.S. West that has suffered drastic declines in recent decades because of oil and gas drilling, grazing, wildfires and other pressures.
The announcement of a range-wide evaluation of habitat plans for greater sage grouse came after the Trump administration tried to scale back conservation efforts adopted when Biden was vice president in 2015.
A federal court blocked Trump’s changes. But Biden administration officials said the attempt set back conservation efforts — even as the chicken-size bird’s habitat was further ravaged by wildfires, invasive plants and continued development.
Republican-run states and industries that profit off public lands have clashed with wildlife advocates over how much space the birds need to survive.
Some environmentalists insisted that the 2015 plans didn’t go far enough because of loopholes that allowed grazing and drilling on land that sage grouse need.
Biologists say wide buffers from drilling and other activities are needed to protect sage grouse breeding areas where birds engage in elaborate annual mating rituals.
Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Nada Culver said “everything’s on the table” as the agency launches its evaluation of sage grouse habitat, with no set deadlines for action.
“From changes to the buffers to how we manage energy development to how we manage every other activity ... we are evaluating it, and we are looking for input on what are the most important things to look at,” Culver said.
Officials also will look at how climate change is adding to pressures on sage grouse. Culver pointed to data showing wildfires burned almost 10,700 square miles of the bird’s habitat since 2016. The vast majority of the fires were on federal lands.
Greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions across all or portions of 11 Western states. Populations have dropped 65% since 1986, government scientists recently concluded.
In 2010, wildlife officials said drastic habitat losses meant protections for sage grouse had become warranted for under the Endangered Species Act. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not take any action at the time, saying other species took priority.
In 2015, the wildlife service determined protections were no longer needed after other federal and states officials adopted sweeping land management plans meant to halt or reverse the species’ decline.
The plans were billed as a compromise, but some components unraveled after Trump took office in 2017 and states sought changes to the documents that critics said would hurt grouse.
The quirky birds with long, pointed tail feathers are known for their elaborate courtship display in which male birds puff up air sacs in their chests to make an odd popping sound.
Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance, a group that represents oil and gas companies, said Friday’s move by the administration was expected.
“Sage grouse has been a political football for decades,” she said, adding that Democratic administrations have used the bird to block access to what her association views as productive uses of public lands.
Federal officials said in May in response to a court order that they would consider a ban on new mining on large areas of public land to help the birds.
A ban that officials sought to impose under former President Barack Obama was dropped by the Trump administration. The affected lands totaled 10 million acres in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The land bureau has resumed that process. It will consider the original proposal and additional options, spokesperson Alyse Sharpe said.
The order to take a new look at mining came in a lawsuit from environmentalists pending before U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Idaho. The judge faulted the Trump administration for ignoring prior science on the issue.
Erik Molvar with Western Watersheds Project, the lead plaintiff in the case, said falling back on the Obama-era management plans would not be enough to protect the grouse.
The plans made it too easy for oil companies and ranchers to disturb the bird’s sage brush habitat, he said.