2022 | Next steps for Greater sage-grouse conservation

by Heather Feeney, Public Affairs Specialist  

In 2015 the BLM adopted plans for managing sagebrush-steppe lands in 10 Western states to conserve these public lands as habitat for the Greater sage-grouse (C. urophasianus). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the actions in these plans and others that cover private, state and other federal lands were enough to ameliorate the primary threats the species was facing, so that a listing under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted.

While the 2015 plans are a solid foundation for avoiding the need to list Greater sage-grouse, we are interested in learning whether there are additional steps we can take to improve outcomes for sage-grouse going forward. As the steward of the largest share of remaining sagebrush habitat in the U.S., the BLM plays a key role in sage-grouse conservation. We are committed to reversing long-term downward trends in sage-grouse populations and habitats in ways that fulfill our multiple-use and sustained-yield mission and meet the needs of Western economies. 

Pink flowering bitterroot under sagebrush canopy
Sagebrush is known as a nurse plant because it supports growth and development of other plants, like this pink flowering bitterroot, beneath its canopy. Sagebrush-steppe lands are home to more than 350 species, along with the Greater sage-grouse. USFWS/Jennifer Strickland

We are now reviewing the 2015 plans to focus on clarifying and updating them to account for relevant information that has become available since 2015, including new science and rapid changes affecting public lands such as the worsening effects of climate change.

By the numbers 

The BLM is responsible for 78 million acres of sagebrush habitat, more than any other surface-manager in the U.S. This gives the agency a leading role in efforts to reverse declines in sage-grouse populations by safeguarding the landscapes they and more than 350 other species rely on. Under its mandate of multiple use and sustained yield, the Bureau also manages these lands for the present and future benefit of people who rely on them to support livelihoods and traditions.

Infographic showing surface ownership of sage-grouse habitat in the U.S.
BLM-administered public lands encompass about 78 million acres of sagebrush habitat. The next-largest share of habitat is in private ownership (67.6 million). The U.S. Forest Service manages 10 million acres, and 5 million acres are under Tribal management. BLM-Wyoming 

In the U.S. and Canada, state or provincial governments manage wildlife populations in their respective jurisdictions. Wildlife habitat is the responsibility of the person or group who owns the land or waters. Since the very beginning of sage-grouse conservation efforts, it’s been clear that coordination and collaboration among landowners and between various levels of government are essential to success because populations and habitats are biologically connected, irrespective of ownership.

The BLM has decades of experience in collaborating this way. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA; 1976) establishes the principles of multiple use management for the 245 million acres of public land the agency administers and calls for public involvement in planning how those lands are used. Policies and regulations give the Act legs in everyday operations. 

A BLM work crew removes a fence from sagebrush habitat in Wyoming
Managing sagebrush-steppe as sage-grouse habitat can involve modifying activities and structures associated with other authorized uses. Here, a BLM crew removes an old fence that cut through sage-grouse habitat but was no longer needed. BLM-Wyoming 

As is true of any wildlife, sage-grouse do not acknowledge land ownership status or administrative boundaries, and their season-based lifecycles typically involve wide areas at different times of the year, for different uses: mating, nesting, brood-rearing. Responding to downward trends in populations or habitat conditions must be an all-hands effort, with an eye on the landscape level. The habitat under BLM stewardship – a 45% share – is wide and varied enough to provide much-needed monitoring data and places to utilize various science-based management tools to support conservation. 

A BLM biologist views a sage-grouse lek near Steens Mountain, Oregon
Counts of birds seen in spring at leks like this one near Steens Mountain in Oregon are important for monitoring the effectiveness of actions in management plans. BLM-OR/WA,Greg Shine 

To the letter

To guide the BLM’s on-the-ground conservation actions, the plans designate several categories of habitat. These designations inform decisions on authorizing proposed land uses and prioritizing investments in restoration and protection.

Priority habitat management areas (PHMAs) are public lands that have the highest value for sustaining sage-grouse populations. Currently, 30.3 million acres of BLM-administered public land in 10 Western states are designated as PHMAs.

Within PHMAs, some acres (about 11.3 million) are singled out as essential strongholds and are designated as sagebrush focal areas (SFAs). The 2015 plans call for withdrawing SFAs from location and entry under the United States mining laws, subject to valid existing rights, to further protect their habitat values. The BLM will publish a separate draft environmental impact statement (EIS) analyzing the effects of the proposed withdrawal later this year.

The largest designation category, spatially speaking, is BSU, biologically significant unit. The management tool called a disturbance cap is tracked within BSUs to help ensure that habitat loss due to human activity does not exceed what sage-grouse can tolerate.  

A Venn diagram showing the relationship of sage-grouse habitat designations
The management plans adopted in 2015 designate several categories of habitat.

In light of new scientific information and ongoing climate change effects, we are considering whether there are additional steps we should take to improve outcomes for sage-grouse and for people across the West who rely on sagebrush-steppe for their livelihoods and traditions: How best to identify, manage and conserve sage-grouse habitat on public lands?

We’re planning for today and for the future. 

Sagebrush seedlings in a greenhouse are handled by an attendant
Sagebrush seedlings are cultivated in facilities around the West for use in restoring and conserving habitat. (Jeff Clark, BLM-OR/WA)

Through February 8, 2022, we’re gathering input on issues to consider as we evaluate the need for updates to our current sage-grouse plans. Submit comments online or by mail: Patricia Deibert, 440 W 200 S, Suite 500, Salt Lake City, UT 84101. Comments must be received by February 8, 2022. Visit https://go.usa.gov/xeMMd for background information and documents.