Greater Sage-Grouse Habitats Reconsidered for Protection from Fossil Fuels

The number of greater sage-grouse, a wide-ranging, ground-dwelling bird once abundant in Oregon and other Western states, has plummeted by 80 percent since 1965 due to habitat loss and fragmentation.  

According to a March 2021 report co-authored by a team of 94 scientists and specialists — including Jonathan Dinkins, an assistant professor within Oregon State University’s Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences — the sagebrush ecosystem that sage-grouse and other wildlife and diverse human communities depend upon is continuing to be rapidly imperiled by numerous growing threats, including oil and gas drilling, the expansion of encroaching conifer trees, invasive grasses that facilitate the spread of wildfires, and other factors exacerbated by climate change. OSU’s Sagebrush Habitat Team, established in 2016 in response to these large-scale threats, has been conducting further ecological research on the topic. 

The Obama administration had temporarily halted mining and drilling in so-called “sagebrush focal areas” during its second term and initiated an environmental impact review process to permanently withdraw 10 million acres of these focal areas from extractive activities. Conversely, the Trump administration, upon taking office, severely weakened these protections and abandoned the review process, giving green light to oil and gas and agricultural development on sage-grouse habitats throughout the West. This decision was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Western Watershed Project, Wildearth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society. The Trump Administration’s cancellation was overturned by a federal judge in February, ordering the Bureau of Land Management to reopen the review process.  

Champions of sage-grouse may soon hear better news. The draft of the environmental impact statement will be soon published for public comment, according to a statement by the BLM on Friday. However, according to some specialists, the agency’s decision to reconsider the Obama-era proposal to withdraw 10 million acres of sage-grouse habitats, while necessary, doesn’t go big enough for the birds or their ecosystems. 

“This is a good first step toward protecting greater sage grouse, but much more is needed to ensure their survival as a species,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release on Wednesday. “The interlocking challenges of climate change, fire and habitat loss require the Biden administration to take bold action or sage grouse will continue on their current path to extinction. These beautiful birds and their ecosystem won’t recover unless the Interior secretary bans mining and drilling in their priority habitat.” 

By Joanna Rosińska