Conservation groups demand more from land managers for Southern Utah sage grouse habitat

The Bodie Hills region totals 121,500 acres of BLM lands, adjacent to Forest Service and privately owned land. California’s Eastern Sierra region is a dramatic transition zone between the snow-capped granite spires of the Sierra Nevada and the endless sagebrush covered uplands of the Great Basin. Visitors to Bodie Hills can explore the Bodie ghost town and then head out on a wilderness adventure among wildflowers or fall colors, depending on time of year. Wildlife viewers can see antelope, mule deer, and if lucky, get a glimpse of the Greater sage-grouse. location and date unspecified |, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH — For nearly a quarter of a century, a spirited political debate has taken place on how to protect one of the West’s most iconic birds: the sage grouse.

A male bi-state sage-grouse struts, Nevada, March 1, 2010 | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cedar City News

Despite a persistent chasm between people passionate about protecting the environment and governmental agencies tasked with managing public lands, there has been a growing level of cooperation to find solutions.

But corralling groups with such disparate interests is no easy task, said Matt Cahill, sagebrush sea program director for The Nature Conservancy.

“It has been (a contentious relationship) in the past … but I think in recent years we’ve seen both sides come together to agree upon a set of solutions that work for everyone,” Cahill said. “There is a (shared) focus on how the (sage grouse) ecosystem is managed into the future versus the management of a specific ecology for one species. What we’ve found is the big problems are so large in scope that not just one entity can manage them.”

Utah’s Bureau of Land Management, along with 30 public and private stakeholders, are drafting changes to existing regulations to protect and conserve the habitat of a very specific grouse, the Gunnison sage-grouse.

“Collaboration can be a big hurdle to overcome when there are varied opinions about the management of a species,” said BLM sage grouse coordinator Leah Waldner. “The goal is to try to find a middle ground … with everyone bringing something to the table. … It is a critical part of (the process).”

While collaboration seems to be a catchphrase that many interest groups aspire to achieve, it’s not that simple for many organizations focused on biological solutions, said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director for the Western Watersheds Project.

“The approach of appeasing all the disparate interests and crafting a compromise frames the solution from a political, rather than a biological perspective,” he said. “If the feds craft a compromise that everyone can grudgingly live with but doesn’t address the primary drivers of extinction — a likely outcome, as compromises rarely include vested interests giving up on problematic activities or traditions they hold dear — then the Gunnison sage-grouse doesn’t have its minimum thresholds of biological requirements met and goes extinct.”

Utah supports an estimated 6% of the total range-wide sage grouse population. The populations are distributed throughout the northern, western, and central parts of Utah. Current estimates suggest that sage grouse may occupy up to 8 million acres or about 41% of the historic habitats in Utah, date unspecified, Gunnison, Colo. | Photo courtesy Andrew Spencer, Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, St. George News

This is why the Endangered Species Act requires all decisions to be made solely based on the best available science, Molvar said.

“The political maneuvering is the problem, and by pushing that to the margins and focusing on biological needs … agencies can stave off extinction and foster recovery,” he added. “Political compromise will result in continued declines.”

Among all of the species of the North American grouse, two birds — the greater sage-grouse and Gunnison sage-grouse — have attracted the lion’s share of attention.

Of particular interest is the health and welfare of the Gunnison sage-grouse, widely recognized as one of the rarest and threatened avian species in America.

By some estimates, as many as 16 million greater sage-grouse once roamed across the plains and high deserts of Canada and 13 western states. Estimates now put the current population somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 birds.

Sage grouse fossils have been found in New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma, which suggests that even though the species was extirpated from that area, such landscapes once had ecosystems that could support the bird.

The presence of fossils at Conkling Cave and Shelter Cave in southern New Mexico show that the species was present south of its current range at the end of the last ice age. Some experts project that the species could become increasingly vulnerable as global climate change increases the humidity in semiarid regions.

The Gunnison sage-grouse hasn’t fared much better. In the late 1970s, some estimates put the Gunnison sage-grouse population at 10,000 birds.

According to data provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the current population of the Gunnison Basin sage grouse is estimated at approximately 4,300 birds. Although there have been some increases in population numbers in recent years, the bird is experiencing a long-term downward trend.

The Gunnison sage-grouse is a ground-dwelling bird species with a current range limited to eight widely scattered and geographically isolated populations: the Gunnison Basin, San Miguel Basin, Piñon Mesa, Crawford, Cerro Summit-Cimarron-Sims Mesa, Poncha Pass and Dove Creek populations in southwestern Colorado and the Monticello Population in southeastern Utah.

They occupy approximately 10% of the birds’ recognized historical range that once spanned the Four Corners region across Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

The Bodie Hills region totals 121,500 acres of BLM land. By some estimates, as many as 16 million greater sage-grouse once roamed across the plains and high deserts of Canada and 13 western states. Estimates now put the current population somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 birds, Mono County, Calif., date unspecified | Photo Public Domain Sage Grouse Images |ID:3398039, St. George News

The BLM manages approximately 40% of Gunnison sage-grouse habitat across 12 Colorado and Utah counties. This includes approximately 60% of occupied habitat for the largest of the populations, the Gunnison Basin population found within the Colorado counties of Gunnison and Saguache.

In Utah, the population near Monticello and Dove Creek, just over the Colorado border, is fairing much worse. Experts say the bird population locally has dwindled to alarming numbers.

“Technically, these populations are still considered active, but Monticello and Dove Creek have certainly had zero or very small, single-digit numbers on the leks (breeding grounds) during the past 10 years,” Waldner said. “But there are still sage grouse there. But we also know these are some of the smallest populations studied.”

While the Gunnison Basin sage-grouse represents 85% of the breeding population and is the main thrust of conservation and habitat improvement projects, the smaller satellite populations, particularly Monticello and Dove Creek, have been recognized as one of the more important outlier populations.

Sage grouse are frequently considered an indicator species by biologists. As the sagebrush habitat goes, so goes the Gunnison sage-grouse. The bird’s decline, linked to habitat fragmentation, indicates trouble for other species that also rely on sagebrush for food and shelter, such as mule deer, Brewer’s sparrow and elk.

Molvar echoes many others’ concerns.

“The Gunnison sage-grouse is at critically low population levels and the satellite populations are on life support. There is some evidence that (Monticello/Dove Creek) has winked out already,” Molvar said. “Continuing the same kind of management is not a viable option. Will there be the political will to enact a workable sage grouse habitat protection blueprint that halts the ongoing agents of destruction that are currently driving the grouse extinct?”

In Utah, on a sprawling tract of sagebrush just outside Monticello, an 11-year-old land acquisition was designed to provide a critical foothold for sage grouse.

In 2012, the Utah Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 1,080 acres of land within the core of Utah’s remaining Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.

As the owner of the property, the conservancy has added more than 15,000 sagebrushes to control the spread of invasive plants and manage expanding pinyon-juniper and woodland encroachment.

In partnership with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the conservancy has worked to convert 130 acres of dry farmland to sagebrush, a change that will provide the birds more room to move between wintering, nesting and brood-rearing habitats.

Research has shown that human impacts and the fragmentation of the land have had a paralyzing effect on the birds, restricting their natural movements and ability to reproduce.

To address this issue, the conservancy has refurbished an earthen dam to catch and collect spring runoff, creating a new area of wet meadow, which provides food and cover for the grouse as they raise their chicks.

This map details occupied and unoccupied Gunnison sage-grouse habitat | Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, St. George News

The land deal also provided immediate protection for the grouse against threats ranging from the conversion of habitat to farmland, solar and wind energy development, installation of power lines and other human disturbances.

To better adapt to human-made and natural threats, the BLM is in the final steps of a top-to-bottom review of land use plans in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.

In July 2022, federal and state agencies initiated a review of land use plans to incorporate management decisions to preserve and enhance habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse. The process involves evaluating existing resource management plans for field offices, national conservation areas and national monuments that intersect with sage grouse habitat.

The review spans portions of seven BLM field offices, three national conservation areas and one national monument in portions of southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. The review addresses various management actions, including mineral leasing, development/infrastructure, recreation, livestock grazing, fire management and habitat restoration.

The planning area encompasses approximately 25.5 million acres of federal, state, city, county, tribal and private lands in Colorado and Utah, including 7.5 million acres of BLM-administered surface lands, along with an estimated 18 million acres of BLM-administered federal mineral estates.

This draft includes management alternatives for the decision area that may modify or amend decisions in the existing BLM Colorado and Utah Resource Management Plans.

The BLM currently manages approximately 42% of the total occupied habitat (406,030 acres) and roughly 27% (261,600 acres) of the total unoccupied habitat of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

“The status quo is devastating these iconic birds,” said Ryan Shannon, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity endangered species program. “If we’re to have any hope of saving this species, land managers on both the federal and state level have to stop relying on outdated, ineffective management plans. They need to take immediate action to protect the few surviving grouse.”

Developing alternatives

In response, the BLM has developed four alternatives aimed at improving conservation measures for the Gunnison sage-grouse.

This image shows Cock of the Plains (pheasant-tailed grouse) from Birds of America (1827) by John James Audubon, etched by William Home Lizars | Illustration Public Domain Sage Grouse Images | ID: 277391, St. George News

Taking no action (Alternative A) is one option and Alternative C focuses on management within occupied and unoccupied habitats. Under this alternative, resource uses and other actions would be allowed if their impacts on the bird could be avoided, minimized or mitigated through compensatory mitigation measures. This alternative does not include the creation of buffer zones.

Alternative B, generated from public comments, would establish a 4-mile adjacent buffer zone outside of occupied and unoccupied populations. The aim is to look at the potential impacts and threats outside populated zones.

Because Alternative B focuses on eliminating threats over the greatest geographic range, it is the most restrictive regarding other uses.

Alternative D reduces the buffer zone around occupied habitats to 1 mile. There has been some confusion that the 1-mile buffer is a buffer around grouse communal areas. Under the alternatives, the communal-area buffers vary by activity type and often are 3.1 miles.

The latter alternative represents certain goals, objectives and actions the BLM anticipates would be most effective at resolving planning issues and balancing resource uses.

“Alternative B is to try and exclude every threat across the decision area … and Alternative D takes more of a balanced approach in conservation and resource allocation,” Waldner said. “The beauty in crafting Alternative D is that it took elements from all of the other alternatives and incorporated viewpoints from various cooperating agencies and public comments.”

Waldner added they need to look at conservation measures and resource allocation, taking into account population trends, which is the driving force behind BLM’s planning efforts.

“In Colorado, state and federal agencies are looking at population trends calculated over a three-year average, high-male count in their breeding areas,” Waldner said. “The latest data (2022) shows that we are 19% below the long-term average (dating back to 1996) for the Gunnison sage-grouse. This indicates that over time, the average is on a downward trend.”

BLM’s preferred alternative focuses on “balanced management of resource allocation among land uses while eliminating and/or minimizing threats to Gunnison sage-grouse in occupied and unoccupied habitat.”

While some proponents of greater conservation measures are taking a wait-and-see attitude until the final alternative is released, others are not happy with the preliminary draft’s language.

“The buffer zones have somewhat been oversimplified,” Molvar said. “Within the buffer zones, they don’t preclude development; they just say minimize development. Minimizing doesn’t mean anything from a regulatory standpoint.”

Molvar questions the preferred alternative’s lack of clarity.

“The preferred alternative has a lot of squishy language that can be interpreted multiple ways,” he said. “If we really are going to get serious about restoring Gunnison sage-grouse to a point that we no longer need species protections. That should be everyone’s goal.”

Adult male sage grouse spar on a lek in Colorado, Victoria, Minn., date unspecified | Photo courtesy Stan Tekiela/Getty Images, St. George News

The Endangered Species Act is the one piece of legislation that has worked very well, Molvar added.

“It applies very clear criteria to follow,” he said. “The act is not the problem. The problem is political meddling with how protections are being applied. Endangered and threatened species need to have certainty in terms of their habitat protection. Instead, what the BLM is proposing is riddled with waivers, exceptions, exclusions and modifications. It’s filled with weasel words that allow different land managers to interpret the language differently and make radically different decisions about protecting Gunnison sage-grouse or not.”

BLM’s preferred alternative has drawn criticism because it lacks binding commitments or triggering actions when the regulations are broken, others say.

“What we are looking for are binding actions if land health standards aren’t being met,” Shannon said. “But, ‘Why aren’t the standards being met?’ is kind of the wrong question. The fact is they are not being met, so what are we going to do about it? Continuing to do the same things just isn’t good enough.”

Shannon supports management plans with more scope.

“Unfortunately, BLM’s multiple-use framework leads to ambiguity and confusion,” he said. “I think the fear is that it leads to a situation where folks want to have their cake and eat it too. If its ultimate aim is sustainable use, it is a hard thing to achieve while everyone does what they want to do. The regulations need to be stricter in the first place. I think it’s being written in such a way that it’s possible to let almost anyone off the hook for (conducting) illegal actions.”

Cahill, who focuses much of his attention on the greater sage-grouse, also supports government actions that impose real change.

“We have to accept change is coming to the ecosystem, and I hope the final plan empowers and invests in the BLM to work with its partners,” Cahill said. “I hope the plans have a stronger vision for greater protection for certain landscapes that are intact and undisturbed today. I hope the plans are more flexible with fewer restrictions on lands that don’t meet the criteria used.

For many, if not all, environmental groups, the thought that the next generation of bird lovers might not have the opportunity to see the Gunnison sage-grouse is heartbreaking.

“We really don’t know where the linchpin is,” Shannon said. “It’s arrogant to assume we understand everything enough to make judgments about which species we can afford to lose and which ones we cannot. Why does poetry matter? Why does art matter? If you approach everything in a transactional state of mind, it can be a hard question to answer, but not everything needs to be transactional.”


Sage-Grouse on the Curlew National Grassland. Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Credit: U.S. Forest Service. Photo Public Domain Sage Grouse Images, location and date unspecified | Photo Public Domain Sage Grouse Images ID: 4034856, St. George News

Shannon believes the world is poorer when it loses even one species.

“This bird is incredible and unique,” he added. “I don’t think anyone who has seen them (doing their mating dance) and the whooping calls thinks otherwise.”

Gunnison sage-grouse are similar to, but rarer than, their close relative the greater sage-grouse. They have the same courtship rituals where males gather on lekking grounds to puff themselves up, fan their tails into a starburst and use bizarre pouches in their chests to make loud burbling noises to attract females.

Research has shown that the Gunnison birds are smaller than the greater sage-grouse, with different courtship behavior and genetic distinctions.

In the late 1990s, Clait Braun, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s former avian program manager determined the Gunnison birds were a new species, separate from the greater sage-grouse.

The decline in bird populations “is devastating news for the Gunnison sage-grouse, but no one should be shocked,” Braun said in a 2020 news release issued by The Center for Biological Diversity.

“Despite the clear downward trend in recent years, (state and federal agencies) have yet to develop robust or meaningful protections for the species,” Braun added. “Protecting the species has to be more than a paper exercise justifying business as usual.”

A historical decline

Threats to Gunnison sage-grouse populations aren’t new. According to a Western Colorado University study, in 1894, Gunnison sage-grouse population numbers were likely higher than today. In the late 19th century, populations were primarily impacted by hunting.

The Lake City Times reported on Sept. 13, 1894, “Resident Billy Green bagged 863 sage grouse in one day on Sapinero Mesa.” This one-day total exceeded the male species count from all seven Gunnison sage-grouse populations in 2021.

In the late 1800s, hunting sage grouse was a favorite pastime for many of the West’s settlers, location and date unspecified | File photo, public domain, St. George News

By the turn of the 20th century, alarm bells began clanging the warning for sage grouse viability.

In 1916, world-renowned American zoologist, conservationist, taxidermist and author William Temple Hornaday warned the country about the possible demise of the bird.

“Do the people of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific States wish to see their largest and finest upland game birds follow the bison, the passenger pigeon, and the heath hen into oblivion,” Hornaday wrote. “If they do not, they must act quickly and resolutely; for the hour of disappearance now is mighty close at hand.”

During the 1920s and 1930s, sage grouse were generally declining throughout the species’ range.

Although population increases were reported in the late 1940s and 1950s, declines were reported in the 1960s and 1970s and were associated with sagebrush loss due to herbicide and mechanical treatment.

There are a myriad of challenges facing sage grouse communities from Utah to Washington, Oregon to Colorado, Montana to the Dakotas.

“Climate change, drought — what do plant species look like in the future and how do they respond to rain and fire,” Cahill said. “Rapid changes in the oil and gas industry, the growth of wind and solar energy and human development all pose significant threats. If we want to reverse the long-term trajectory, we have to work together. It’s sort of all or nothing. The BLM needs to be smarter. It needs to be more efficient, but it can learn to change. We are living in a very interesting time, and right now, it doesn’t pay to be pessimistic.”

A final decision and Environmental Impact Statement is expected by mid-2024.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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