Asking the right questions: New science for sagebrush management

When the BLM updates its resource management plans, we state the reasons for proposing to do so in the environmental effects analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act

In the case of the current effort to update plans for conserving greater sage-grouse habitat on BLM-managed public lands, we are looking closely at recently published scientific literature and data gathered since 2015 to determine where changing these plans could strengthen our conservation efforts. We want the best conservation work for sage-grouse to happen in the right places. 

The most basic information is the number of greater sage-grouse -- which, over the last 10 years, has continued its long-term decline. During the first five years the current management plans were in effect (2015-2019), there were more than 40 instances where populations dipped below minimum thresholds established for the areas covered by those plans. 

two greater sage-grouse emerge from sagebrush under blue sky
A study published in 2021 found that greater sage-grouse populations had declined 37% since 2002 (Coates et al.) | USFWS/Tom Koerner

Although all states with greater sage-grouse have seen long-term declines in their numbers, populations change at varying rates across the 145 million acres of sagebrush habitat in the U.S. In managing close to half of those acres, the BLM relies heavily on information that state agencies collect in their work of managing sage-grouse populations. Our understanding of local conditions and trends deepens with each round of data collection. 

two people taking vegetation measurements in sagebrush habitat
The BLM monitors sagebrush habitat areas on nearly 67 million acres of public lands using
a framework adopted with the 2015 habitat management plans. | BLM-AIM Program


Recent research calls attention to the effects of climate change on sagebrush habitat and how this in turn can accelerate declines in the number of sage-grouse. We need to consider whether these effects require adjustments to management decisions made in 2015. 

dry cheatgrass that has overtaken sagebrush habitat
Climate change seems to worsen the spread of non-native grasses that outcompete sagebrush
and intensify wildfire cycles in sage-grouse habitat. | BLM-Idaho/Antonia Hedrick

New science can also help resource managers better understand how sage-grouse select and make use of breeding habitat, and what conditions are needed for these areas to remain available year after year. 

A BLM biologist views a sage-grouse lek near Steens Mountain, Oregon
Observing breeding activity on a lek can disrupt it if the researcher is too close or
too conspicuous. | BLM-Oregon/Greg Shine

By considering new biological research, we will designate and conserve habitat which maintains the genetic diversity and connections that local sage-grouse populations need to adapt to changing conditions. 

GET INVOLVED | Review and comment in the draft environmental analysis of proposed options for strengthening protection of the greater sage-grouse's habitat on BLM-managed public lands. Chapter 1, Section1.2.3 of the Draft EIS summarizes the new science incorporated into the analysis. The public comment period is open through June 13, 2024. 

Heather Feeney, Public Affairs Specialist

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