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There are only 400,000 sage grouse left. Here’s the government’s new plan to save an awesome bird

Two sage grouse roosters challenge each other for hens in Rockland, Idaho. (AP/The Idaho State Journal/Bill Schaefer)

There’s an odd but uniquely American bird out West that dances on a wide stage to mate with hens, and the federal Bureau of Land Management announced a long awaited plan Thursday that aims to help them so they don’t go extinct.

Under the plan, the BLM, which controls millions of acres of public lands with the Forest Service, will regulate miners, energy developers and ranchers who hold federal leases to work in sage brush wilderness in 10 states more closely to ensure the survival of the greater sage grouse.

Development of energy and mining, as well as cattle grazing, compete for space in sage grouse habitat, and have led to its fragmentation, scattering the birds. When sage grouse populations break up, birds tend to vanish, conservationists say.

The plan seeks to reduce fragmentation by lowering noise and other disturbances from development that frighten sage grouse. In some places it will put a three-mile wide buffer around leks, a flat area where male sage grouse strut to attract and mate with hens, to create a shield to protect their procreation.

BLM and the Forest Service will continue to develop partnerships with ranchers, state officials, local government officials and non-profit groups to manage and restore the bird’s habitat under the plan, removing trees used by birds of prey that eat them and planting sage brush they need for nesting and shelter.

Finally, the private and public partnerships will work to lower the threat of range fires that destroy sage brush, especially in the Great Basin region of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.

The bureau’s updated plan, three years in the making, replaces one that critics say allowed energy and cattle operations to nearly wipe out sage grouse. “The updated plans are an essential element of a …strategy to respond to the deteriorating health of the American West’s sagebrush… and declining population of the greater sage-grouse,” according to a statement by the Interior Department, which oversees BLM.

“The West is rapidly changing – with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who traveled to Wyoming for the announcement. “As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage-grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy. Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West.”

[Sage grouse at the California/Nevada border are troubled, but don’t deserve protection, Fish and Wildlife says]

Conservation groups called the plan historic. It is “a huge step in the right direction,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Nada Culver of the Wilderness Society called it “impressive and … inspiring.”

Doug Thompson, a rancher and county commissioner in Fremont, Wyo., welcomed it.  “We recognize the benefits of properly managed grazing to the sage grouse and healthy working landscapes…,” he said. “Our livelihoods and the future of our children depends on the promised certainty of the respectful administration of these coordinated plans.”

Greater sage grouse were once so numerous that flocks of millions blackened the sky, according to accounts of conservationists. Now fewer than a half million are spread over 11 western states, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the middle of making a final decision to list an animal that inhabited the West for more than a million years as a threatened or endangered species. The decision is due in September.

Conservationists and federal officials say preservation and good management of Greater Sage Grouse is key because it means the sage brush that so many animals depend on is likewise well managed.

In addition to mineral excavation, human development and cattle grazing, sagebrush habitat is threatened by wildfire. Because the brush grows back slowly, it gives way to faster-growing invasive cheat grass that now dominates the range.

On top of that, juniper trees grow in far greater numbers on sage grouse habitat. Hawks and falcons use perches provided by the trees to kill sage grouse. When sage grouse detect trees, they leave an area for good.

The plan is part of what Interior deputy assistant secretary Jim Lyons called “the most comprehensive collaborative and innovative approach to dealing with a species that I’ve ever seen.” Lyons, who handles land management for the agency, oversaw the Forest Service under the Clinton administration.

Jewell chose Wyoming because it has more Greater Sage Grouse than any state. Over six decades, sage grouse habitat was overrun by cattle grazing, housing and business development and natural resource harvesting operations mostly on federal land managed by the bureau as officials failed to heed warnings that the bird was in trouble.

Fish and Wildlife has received petitions from interest groups to list sage grouse dating back to 2002, Lyons said. The agency developed a conservation strategy and identified threats to the species but decided not to place it on a threatened or endangered list ten years ago. The agency was taken to court, and a judge ruled that it should conduct more studies and come up with a firm determination to list or not.

“You see this all the time in conservation,” Lyons said. “You saw it with spotted owls.” Sage grouse are compared to the Northern Spotted Owl because their 1990 listing as threatened  in the forests of Washington, Oregon, and California impacted logging the way a grouse listing could impact ranching, farming and energy development in those three states, and also Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

In 2010, Fish and Wildlife determined that greater sage grouse deserved endangered protection because there weren’t enough regulations to end human threats to its habitat.

Two factors motivated Wyoming state officials and ranchers to save their population of sage grouse: they are intensely opposed to a potential federal endangered listing that would lead to Fish and Wildlife oversight on some land management, and they are genuinely interested in the survival of an animal that was a feature on the state’s landscape long before it existed.

[Westerners worry that sage grouse protection will cost them billions]

When the government announced that the sage grouse could deserve a listing under the Endangered Species Act, Wyoming officials and residents sprang to action to stop that from happening. The state established a program to restore habitat in its Powder River Basin where oil and gas development operations scattered populations. About 27,000 natural gas wells have been drilled there, according to the BLM, with an operating life of a dozen years.

Wyoming’s work promises to yield modest growth in sage grouse populations. It was Jewell’s second trip to the region in weeks. Earlier in May she visited Idaho to announce wildfire prevention efforts to stop flames from destroying sage grouse habitat, and start a cycle that’s contributing the the bird’s demise.

With the help of the BLM, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and other states have formed partnerships with groups such as The Nature Conservancy to cut some juniper trees.

“Federal and state governments and private landowners recognize that a healthy sagebrush landscape means a healthy western economy,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service. “We are working with local partners to design innovative, long-term conservation plans. Together, we can put effective conservation measures in place that not only benefit the greater sage-grouse, but also preserve the western way of life, help improve grazing lands and bolster rural economies.”