WUP Sage-grouse Program Update:

This past year has been the “year of the sage-grouse” at our office! First, our partner the Sierra Club asked for our help in reviewing an Environmental Impact Statement that explored whether it is a good idea to allow coal mining outside the town of Alton Utah (north of Kanab). This would entail significantly expanding mining operations onto public BLM lands, away from the small private land parcel already leased for surface mining. If you live here in Utah you may have already heard that if the public land lease is granted, the town of Panguitch can expect one million coal haul trucks to rumble through day and night, over many decades. But you may not have heard about the Alton sage-grouse lek (breeding ground) that will be impacted. It so happens that the lek outside of the town of Alton is the southern-most documented lek of the Greater sage-grouse in North America. This is significant because the sage-grouse is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately for this particular population of sage-grouse, private coal mining is already occurring less than a mile away from the lek and is affecting sage-grouse habitat. If we add to that the extensive, proposed public lands mining, there is almost no question that this population will be lost. So this past winter Wild Utah Project teamed up with the Sierra Club and its legal team to send over 25 pages of hard-hitting and scientifically-based comments to the BLM on the Environmental Impact Statement that would approve the lease expansion, and we are doing all we can to stop the mine expansion. And thanks to the BLM’s new national strategy to conserve sage-grouse, we think we may have a fighting chance of succeeding!

Also, in the fall of 2011 the BLM announced a new national strategy for conserving sage-grouse across BLM lands throughout the West. This new strategy is in direct response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2010 finding that the sage-grouse is warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act. One of the chief reasons it is warranted is the “failure of regulatory mechanisms.” What does this mean in plain English? The Service pointed the finger of blame squarely at the BLM’s Resource Management Plans across the West and their failure to adequately ensure basic sage-grouse protections from destructive land uses like fossil fuel exploration and development, roads and fences, and livestock grazing.

Now the BLM is poised to amend 68 separate Resource Management Plans west-wide, including most of the Utah plans. This past winter the BLM had a public scoping period for the various Environmental Impact Statements guiding the process. Wild Utah Project worked with many of our other Utah partners to submit a “sage-grouse recovery alternative” during this comment period, based in the latest sage-grouse science. We will advocate that the BLM use this opportunity to make sure that the Resource Management Plan revisions offer the strongest possible sage-grouse protections.

Do we think the agency will accept our suggestions? In this case, we are hopeful because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely have some significant influence over the BLM’s decision. If the revised Resource Management Plans don’t pass muster with the Service and they don’t think the plans are strong enough on sage-grouse protections, there is every possibility that the Service will list the species when the final listing decision is due in 2015. Is this a risk the BLM thinks is worth taking? We hope not. Stay tuned. We will monitor the Resource Management Plan revisions closely and we’ll let you know what happens.

And by the way, Wild Utah Project has been so involved in the sage-grouse issue in Utah over the past year that our media page is bursting with radio pieces and news clippings that feature Wild Utah Project’s role in working for better protections for this species. Click here to go to our media page and scroll down to see all these sage-grouse stories, AND our special sage-grouse video we put together this past fall!