Conservation Column Sep 2015: New Rules Adopted to Protect Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat

Debbie Schlenoff                                541.685.0610                             dschlenoff (at) msn.com


The Greater Sage-Grouse has been a subject of intense debate in Salem during the last few months. On July 27 of this year, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC) and the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) adopted new, more restrictive rules to mitigate impacts by solar, wind, and mining projects in the sage-grouse habitat of Oregon. The new rules are an attempt by the state to head off a possible endangered species listing for the bird by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The listing, scheduled to be decided in September, would impose new regulations in the 11 states that contain Greater Sage-Grouse habitat. As one of these states, Oregon would face new federal regulations on development and ranching, particularly in central and eastern Oregon where 90% of the Oregon sage-grouse population resides.

The debate over the Greater Sage-Grouse comes after decades of population and habitat loss for the bird. Habitat fragmentation, urbanization, ranching, and widespread grazing have contributed to a loss of sagebrush habitat and a 40% reduction in the historical range of the bird. A recent study commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts determined that the sage-grouse population decreased by 56% between 2007 and 2013. The rapid decline of this key indicator species suggests a similar decline in the health of sagebrush ecosystems across multiple western states. Given these circumstances, it is important that the Greater Sage-Grouse and its unique sagebrush habitat receive adequate protection before it is too late to save them.

The rules Oregon recently adopted are important first steps toward full protection for the Greater Sage-Grouse and include promising new limits on development. For instance, the new rules would establish buffer zones surrounding leks, which are important breeding grounds for the grouse. Yet the conservation community still debates whether the new regulations will provide adequate protection for the bird. The core pillars of the new Oregon rules, which are also key parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Greater Sage-Grouse conservation strategy, are minimization, avoidance, and compensatory mitigation. The first two of these strategies, minimization and avoidance, do not actually bar future energy developments in core sage-grouse habitat. The third strategy, compensatory mitigation, has not been proven to help achieve conservation goals in a practical setting.

Although the conservation strategies at the heart of the newly adopted rules and the BLM plans contain various shortfalls, they represent progress toward securing the future of the Greater Sage-Grouse. Previous conservation efforts have been hindered by a lack of continuity in federal and state regulations. However, the joint effort by the OFWC and LCDC to develop these rules displays a new level of coordination that will, we hope, result in greater protection for this iconic bird of the Pacific Northwest. Endangered species listing aside, the regional and national discussions surrounding protections for the sage-grouse demonstrate a promising movement in favor of establishing concrete, enforceable rules for wildlife protection.