Declining Sage Grouse in the American West: Can the Threat of Listing This Species Help Transform the Bureau of Land Management?

Article excerpt


The sage grouse is a widely ranged, sparsely distributed species that lives in the vast "Sagebrush Sea" in the western US and Canada. Two sage grouse species have experienced significant declines over the past 50 to 150 years. Conservationists have identified the sage grouse as an important indicator, umbrella, and flagship species for sagebrush ecosystems, and have developed a conservation strategy centered on the bird, including the preparation of petitions to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The Bureau of Land Management manages most sage grouse habitat. Resource users fear the potential impacts of listing sage grouse--the "spotted owl of the desert"--on activities Bureau of Land Management permits on federal public lands. For the same reason, conservationists look forward to the changes listing the sage grouse might bring to agency, policy and land management. There is already evidence that the threat of listing sage grouse may be contributing to an evolving conservation ethic within the agency, which may lead to improved management of public lands.


As the national environmental conscience has grown, federal land management agencies have been forced to recognize--and even prioritize--watershed, wildlife, and recreational values over traditional resource extraction on federal public lands. For agencies that historically served commercial interests, redirecting their bureaucracy and policy to promote environmental protection and restoration is often a contentious and painful process. Usually, pressure must be applied from both outside, and to a lesser degree, inside a federal agency to impel it toward conservation goals.

The most fundamental changes in federal land management to date have been driven by species listings and resultant requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (although the Clean Water Act and the Indian Trust Doctrine also promise to be effective means to land protection). The best example may be the sweeping changes that the northern spotted owl precipitated in forest management, timber cutting, and wildlife conservation in Pacific Northwest forests managed by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Listing the spotted owl helped transform the Forest Service and BLM forest management branch into more conscientious managers of public lands and watersheds by requiring improved habitat planning under the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Forest Management Act. (The agencies' behavior under the second Bush Administration remains to be seen.)

Sage grouse (Centrocercus spp.) are poised to bring similar changes to more divisions within the BLM that manage mostly tree-free grasslands and deserts. Sage grouse live on vast stretches of BLM land in what is generally known as the "Sagebrush Sea." The mere threat of listing sage grouse under the ESA has already yielded positive results for the grouse and its habitat. More importantly, the increased attention on sage grouse conservation may be contributing to important changes within BLM as a whole, and specifically in their management priorities.

Sage grouse declines

Settlement of the West exacted a heavy toll on sagebrush habitat, and in turn, sage grouse populations that declined in the face of human development. Over the past 200 years sagebrush habitat has been fragmented, damaged, and destroyed by a plethora of human activities. These activities include livestock grazing; agricultural and urban conversion (including suburbanization and "ex-urbanization," or the establishment of new communities far outside of existing urban areas); invasive species (especially cheatgrass); herbicides and pesticide application; altered fire regimes; oil and gas development; off-road vehicle use; and the placement and construction of utility corridors, roads, and fences. The BLM estimates that 220 million acres of sagebrush country have been reduced to 150 million acres of mostly, degraded habitat across the west (BLM 2000). …