Regulatory Update   |   Oct 15th, 2015 USFWS Decision on Greater Sage-grouse Emphasizes Land Use Planning and Management Going Forward


On September 22, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced its decision to not list the greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The decision caps a long history of federal actions regarding the listing of the species dating back to May 1999, and a finding that the species was “warranted but precluded” from listing in 2010. Since 2010, an intensive, concerted effort has been mounted by federal, state, non-government, and private entities to initiate actions designed to significantly reduce the threats to the species and its habitat and, thereby, avoid the need for USFWS to list the species both now and in the future.

Greater sage-grouse occur in 11 states (CA, CO, ID, MT, NV, ND, OR, SD, UT, WA, and WY) and two Canadian Provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan). Initial concern over the status of the greater sage-grouse population was driven primarily by ongoing destruction and modification of its habitat and concomitant reduction of its range, wildfire (often caused by invasive plant proliferation), disease, and the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms for maintaining healthy populations. The September 22, 2015 decision indicated that regulatory mechanisms put in place over the years at Federal and State levels have reduced these threats on approximately 90% of the species’ breeding habitat. Additionally, advancements in oil and gas extraction and production technologies have decreased the anticipated spatial footprint and the time frame required for these activities; fire suppression, invasive weed management, and habitat restoration are reducing current and anticipated impacts to grouse habitat; and voluntary and required measures designed by federal, state, and other entities are reducing the impact development is anticipated to have on greater sage-grouse.

What does this decision mean for developers and private citizens? A listing would have expanded the ability of USFWS to regulate and influence activities on both public and private lands. Had greater sage-grouse been listed, new development in critical grouse habitat, including oil and gas exploration and development, mining, renewable energy development, federal grazing permits, agricultural infrastructure (e.g., water development, fencing), construction and maintenance of roads, residential and commercial developments, and development of water, utilities (e.g., power lines), pipelines, and communications towers could have been severely curtailed or precluded on public and private lands.

Land use planning requirements remain in place to maintain minimal habitat impacts. Federal, state, and other government entities have put a number of restrictions in place and described mitigation measures required to avoid deleterious impacts to grouse as well as to keep the species from becoming federally listed.

Several federal land management agencies (e.g., Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service) have implemented land use planning requirements that will promote sustainable development and minimize impacts to greater sage-grouse and their habitat. The objectives are to:

  • Minimize new or additional surface disturbance in grouse habitats through surface disturbance caps; limiting surface occupancy; prioritizing leasing non-habitat areas for minerals development; buffering leks from disturbance; curtailing renewable energy projects in priority sage-grouse habitat; avoiding transmission line and other linear development in grouse habitat; and withdrawing sagebrush focal areas from mining for up to the next 20 years;
  • Improve habitat condition through mitigation, well-managed livestock grazing practices, monitoring and evaluation of population changes, habitat condition, and effectiveness of mitigation efforts; and
  • Reduce the threat of rangeland fire to sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat by implementing interagency landscape-scale assessments to prioritize areas; using annual treatment and fire management programs based on those priority areas; and developing strategies to check the spread of rangeland fires to protect large intact blocks of sage-grouse habitat.

To ensure success, project developers should coordinate and consult with federal and state land managers involved in the decision-making process early on. Project proponents should provide the agencies with a clear description of the project, its location, scope, timing, and purpose; and should determine the need for avoidance, siting, or mitigation requirements early in the planning process so that the project can proceed in a timely fashion.

TRC has long-term qualified staff biologists and project managers that are experienced in shepherding our clients through this process, including consultation and any other requirements (e.g., density disturbance calculation tool [DDCT] analyses, habitat assessments, GIS assistance with siting, on-site vegetation sampling, and monitoring of mitigation/reclamation back to suitable sage-grouse habitats.