In the latest chapter of a hotly contested environmental issue, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) unveiled the final version of an interim national strategy outlining the steps it will take to protect and restore the sage grouse habitat on America’s public lands.

The BLM said its interim strategy will guide its field offices until state- and local-level sage grouse conservation plans, developed in collaboration with state wildlife experts, are completed and made part of BLM land-use plans.

However, some environmental groups say the strategy doesn’t go far enough. Oregon Natural Desert Association’s Bill Marlett told — a central Oregon news source — that “BLM’s interim strategy is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While BLM may be well intentioned, it’s too little, too late.”

The dispute centers around the fact that the sage grouse inhabits BLM-managed lands in the Rocky Mountain West, lands that are rich in oil and natural gas. In addition to drilling, the lands are also used for grazing, mining and off-road vehicle use. Environmentalists would like to see the bird be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“The national strategy is part of our three-pronged approach to sage grouse management,” said BLM Director Kathleen Clarke. “The first prong — BLM’s 30 years of success in sagebrush conservation — forms the foundation for the second prong, the national strategy we are announcing today. These in turn will be incorporated into the third prong — the development of conservation plans for local and regional levels that turn our broad knowledge and experience into further action.”

The government organization said that in managing sage grouse as a special-status species, BLM has put in place numerous specific, enforceable requirements to protect sagebrush habitat in permits issued for grazing, recreation, mining, and oil and gas activities on the public lands the agency manages. The BLM currently manages half of the sage grouse habitat remaining in the United States, about 57 million acres.

However, environmentalists say that the strategy falls short of recommending that the bird be protected under the ESA by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The BLM program is designed, in part, to influence the decision the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service has to make regarding listing” the sage grouse as an endangered species, Marlett told “This interim strategy is basically to give notice to the Fish and Wildlife Service…[and] to give legal basis to the decision the Fish and Wildlife Service will make in January not to list” the bird as an endangered species.

Mark Salvo, a grassland advocate for the American Lands Alliance who would also like to see the sage grouse protected under the ESA, said the most concerned group about the potential listing of sage grouse is the oil and gas industry. He added that the industry “plans to drill tens of thousands of oil and gas wells across much of the Intermountain West.”

In their prime, the historic range of sage grouse included parts of 16 western states and three Canadian provinces, Salvo said. “The species’ range has since been reduced by half, and the total population is now estimated at 140,000, representing only about 8% of its historic numbers.”

BLM said its managers at the state and field office levels are currently developing management plans that address the highly variable conditions that exist in sagebrush habitats throughout the West. In identifying approaches to conservation that are already yielding on-the-ground success for sage grouse across the West, the agency said the national strategy facilitates the work of identifying the resources and actions that are most appropriate for conditions in specific regions and locales.

BLM said the strategy outlines methods for assessing the risks to sage grouse in various local habitats and identifies actions managers can take to address them that have proven successful elsewhere. “These actions can be incorporated into the planning process when managers approve other uses of public lands, including energy development, livestock grazing, mining, recreation and fire management,” BLM said.

Elements of the national strategy and subsequent conservation plans written by BLM state and field offices will be implemented through the Bureau’s land use planning process.

“We will continue to use the best available science and experience-based knowledge to form our management decisions and establish priorities for maintaining and restoring sagebrush habitats on public lands,” Clarke said. “Lek counts and inventories like those that have been under way around Bishop, CA, and in southeastern Montana ensure that we can track the effects of our management decisions and adapt our plans for the future where necessary.”

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