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The Biden administration on Friday said it will consider new measures to protect greater sage grouse, a bird species once found across much of the U.S. West that has suffered drastic declines in recent decades due to oil and gas drilling, grazing, wildfires and other pressures.
The announcement of a range-wide evaluation of habitat plans for greater sage grouse came after the Trump administration tried to scale back conservation efforts adopted when Biden was vice president in 2015.
A federal court blocked President Trump’s changes. But Biden administration officials said the attempt set back conservation efforts — even as the chicken-sized bird’s habitat was further ravaged by wildfires, invasive plant species and continued development.
Industry groups have resisted further restrictions, such as wide buffers where drilling would be prohibited. Biologists have said those buffers are needed to protect sage grouse breeding areas where the birds engage in elaborate annual mating rituals.
Some environmentalists insisted that the 2015 plans didn’t go far enough because of loopholes that allowed grazing and drilling on land that sage grouse need.
Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Nada Culver said “everything’s on the table” as the agency launches its evaluation of sage grouse habitat, with no set deadlines for action.
“From changes to the buffers, to how we manage energy development, to how we manage every other activity….we are evaluating it and we are looking for input on what are the most important things to look at,” Culver said.
Officials also will look at how climate change is adding to pressures on sage grouse. Culver pointed to data showing wildfires burned almost 10,700 square miles of the bird’s habitat since 2016. The vast majority of those fires were on federal lands.
Greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions across all or portions of 11 Western states. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey said earlier this year that their numbers are down 65% since 1986.
In 2010, U.S. wildlife officials said drastic habitat losses meant protections for sage grouse had become warranted for under the Endangered Species Act. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not take any action at the time, saying other species took priority.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined protections were no longer needed after other federal agencies and states adopted sweeping land management plans meant to halt or reverse the species’ decline. The plans were billed as a compromise, but some were quickly unraveled after Trump took office in 2017 and states sought changes to the documents that critics said would hurt grouse.
The quirky birds with long, pointed tail feathers are known for elaborate courtship display in which male birds puff up air sacs in their chests to make an odd popping sound.
Federal officials said in May response to a court order that they would consider a ban on new mining on large expanses of public lands to help the birds. A ban on mining that officials sought to impose under former President Obama was dropped by the Trump administration.
The affected lands under Obama totaled 10 million acres in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The land bureau will include those lands and additional options, spokesperson Alyse Sharpe said.
The court order came in a lawsuit from environmentalists that’s still pending before U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in Idaho. The judge faulted the Trump administration in February for ignoring prior science on the issue.
Erik Molvar with Western Watersheds Project, the lead plaintiff in the case, said falling back on the Obama-era management plans would not be enough to protect the birds. The plans made it too easy for oil companies and ranchers to disturb the bird’s sage brush habitat, he said.