The Biden administration announced on Friday that it will consider new measures to protect greater sage grouse, a bird species that was once found throughout much of the United States’ West but has suffered drastic declines in recent decades due to oil and gas drilling, grazing, wildfires, and other pressures.
The announcement of a range-wide evaluation of greater sage grouse habitat plans comes after the Trump administration attempted to scale back conservation efforts implemented when Biden was vice president in 2015.
Trump’s changes were halted by a federal court. However, officials from the Biden administration claimed that the attempt hampered conservation efforts — even as the habitat of the chicken-sized bird was further ravaged by wildfires, invasive plant species, and continued development
Further restrictions, such as wide buffer zones where drilling would be prohibited, have been resisted by industry groups. According to biologists, those buffers are necessary to protect sage grouse breeding areas, where the birds perform elaborate annual mating rituals.
Some environmentalists claimed that the 2015 plans were insufficient because of loopholes that allowed grazing and drilling on sage grouse habitat.
As the Bureau of Land Management begins its evaluation of sage grouse habitat, Deputy Director Nada Culver stated that “everything is on the table,” 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 looking for input on what the most important things to look at,” Culver explained.
Officials will also look at how climate change is affecting the sage grouse. Culver cited data indicating that wildfires have burned nearly 10,700 square miles (28,000 square kilometers) of the bird’s habitat since 2016. The vast majority of those fires occurred on federal property. Greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions and could be found in all or parts of 11 Western states. Scientists with the United States Geological Survey stated earlier this year that their numbers have decreased by 65 percent since 1986.
In 2010, U.S. wildlife officials stated that due to drastic habitat loss, sage grouse protections under the Endangered Species Act were now warranted. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service took no action at the time, claiming that other species were more important.
After other federal agencies and states adopted broad land management plans aimed at halting or reversing the species’ decline, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that protections were no longer required in 2015. The plans were billed as a compromise, but some were quickly unraveled after Trump’s election in 2017 and states sought changes to the documents that critics said would harm grouse.
The odd 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 unusual popping sound.
In response to a court order, federal officials said in May that they would consider a ban on new mining on large swaths of public land to help the birds. The Trump administration repealed a mining ban that officials sought to impose under former President Barack Obama. Under Obama, the affected lands totaled 10 million acres (4 million hectares) across Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. According to Alyse Sharpe, a spokesperson for the land bureau, the bureau will include those lands as well as other options.
The court order came as part of an environmentalists’ lawsuit, which is still pending before U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in Idaho. In February, the judge chastised the Trump administration for ignoring prior science on the subject.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project, stated that relying on Obama-era management plans would not be sufficient to protect the birds. The plans made it too easy for oil companies and ranchers to disturb the bird’s sage brush habitat, he said.