Wildlife advocates question federal sage grouse maps

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Proposed federal conservation plans for greater sage-grouse have sliced and diced important habitat, conservation advocates say. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Report says fragmented habitat isn’t adequate for protection of species

Staff Report

FRISCO — After a detailed mapping analysis maps, wildlife conservation advocates say the federal government downsized important habitat for sage grouse.

The findings are outlined in a new report released by WildEarth Guardians. It compares protected areas to remaining key population hotspots. Almost 20 million acres designated as Priority Areas for Conservation disappeared from the Priority Habitat areas proposed in U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management sage grouse plans.

“Apparently the federal agencies thought that they could sneak huge reductions in the acreage of priority habitats past the public by releasing all the plans at the same time,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “But we caught them, and in plenty of time to alert the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the dirty tricks land-use agencies are using to weaken grouse protections.”

Nevada saw the biggest reductions in priority habitats, leaving the state with isolated and fragmented protected areas. The state’s formerly robust system of interconnected priority habitat areas was slashed, with just 51 percent of the originally proposed areas gaining the elevated protection status in federal sage grouse plans. The proposed plans also cut priority habitat in Idaho by 3.8 million acres and by 2 million acres in Utah.

Molvar said the way the proposal looks now leaves important habitat fragmented into small areas that are increasingly vulnerable to losing sage grouse populations.

“These drastic reductions in Priority Habitat radically increase the likelihood of extinction, and unless they’re corrected they will only underscore the need for Endangered Species Act protections,” he said.

In Montana, Idaho, and Nevada, about one-fourth of the most densely populated sage grouse habitats are now excluded from the Priority Habitat system, receiving little protection from destructive activities including oil and gas drilling and heavy livestock grazing that can destroy habitats and cause long-term sage grouse losses.

Molvar accused state-based BLM officials of instigating the cuts.

“These major alterations of sage grouse Priority Habitat designations took place behind closed doors, in back-room deals that serve local political interests, not the sage grouse,” said Molvar. “The responsibility to fix these problems and restore the credibility of the federal sage grouse plans now falls upon administration officials in Washington.”

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