By Marc Campopiano, Max Friedman and Gunnar Gundersen

On Thursday, May 28, 2015, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released fourteen final Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) that incorporate greater-sage-grouse conservation measures into the land-use plans for about 50 million acres of BLM-managed land in 10 western states. The population of the sage-grouse has declined by more than half over the last decade. As discussed in our prior entry, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is under a court-ordered deadline to decide whether to list the sage-grouse on the endangered-species list by September 30, 2015.

The BLM is the nation’s biggest land management agency, controlling land that covers roughly 60 percent of the grouse’s habitat. BLM’s land conservation plans for the sage grouse will be considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before reaching a listing determination. The BLM’s plans are based on three objectives:  (1) minimizing new or additional surface disturbance;  (2) improving habitat conditions; and (3) reducing threat of rangeland fire to sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat. The BLM identifies two types of conservation areas: Priority Habitat Management Areas, which include breeding, late brood-rearing, and winter concentration areas and are identified as having the highest conservation value for maintaining sustainable grouse populations; and General Habitat Management Areas, which are designed to provide greater flexibility for land use activities and include other areas of seasonal or year-round habitat.

The specific plans contained in the various EISs differ somewhat from location to location. The EISs addressing Wyoming’s 38.9 million acres, for example, follow aspects of Wyoming’s state plan for protecting the grouse, stating that in the Priority Habitat areas (totaling about 5 million acres), total existing and new disturbances will be limited to five percent of land per square mile. This would limit disturbances to an average of one mining or drilling facility per square mile. Additionally, the EIS and Wyoming plan create a 0.6 mile buffer zone for sage-grouse breading grounds, known as leks. The BLM also stated that the “plans honor all valid, existing rights, including those for oil and gas development, renewable energy, rights-of-way, locatable minerals, and other permitted projects.”

FWS will review other conservation measures, including BLM’s effort to protect the sage-grouse and its habitat and plans by the US Forest Service and five western state governments, to determine whether the combined conservation efforts make formal listing of the greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) unnecessary.

Reactions to the finalized EISs have been mixed. The Western Energy Alliance stated that it believes that the sage-grouse plans will cost the oil and natural gas industry “between 9,170 and 18,250 jobs and $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion of annual economic impact across Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming,” while others have expressed concerns regarding impacts to mining and grazing in the region. By contrast, conservation groups and sportsmen have generally reacted favorably to the issuance of the EISs, although some environmentalists have argued that the plan makes too many compromises with industry. State governments, which hope to avoid a listing of the sage-grouse under the ESA and associated impacts on the local economy, have generally backed the plan, as well.  Wyoming Governor Matt Mead publicly stating that “it is appropriate to celebrate today.” State governors now have 60 days to perform a “consistency review” of the EIS plans and make additional recommendations to BLM.