Meet the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), known among wildlife watchers for the male's elaborate courtship dance, one of the flashiest displays in nature.
The sage-grouse faces a turning point. A decision under consideration by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management will determine the fate of tens of millions of acres of public land—home to not only the sage-grouse, but also to elk, mule deer, pronghorn, golden eagles, and hundreds of other wildlife species.
Strutting in open meadows across sagebrush country, sage-grouses shrug their shoulders, fan their spiky tail feathers, inflate their yellow air sacs, and shake their ruffs while producing a popping sound that can be heard a mile away. Their flamboyant spectacle to attract hens has been admired by Native Americans and European settlers alike.
Once numbering in the millions, the sage-grouse population has plummeted during the last century due to loss or degradation of habitat. Now, federal and state agencies are working to devise conservation strategies for the bird and its habitat that do not eliminate energy development, grazing, recreation, and other activities traditionally allowed on public lands.
The BLM, which controls approximately half of the remaining sage-grouse habitat, is working with other federal agencies and 10 states on 15 sage-grouse plans that will guide the agency's future land management decisions. This effort represents the largest single-species planning endeavor in the agency's history.
In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide in 2015 whether to list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The strength of the BLM plans will be an important factor in making that determination.
Unfortunately, the 15 draft plans fall short of what is necessary to save the sage-grouse and conserve the sagebrush lands where enthusiasts hunt, fish, and enjoy the outdoors. Specifically, the BLM failed to incorporate conservation measures directed by its own scientific guidelines and to create internal consistency among plans. The wide variations in the agency's management prescriptions create 15 different approaches to sage-grouse conservation within and across state boundaries and hinder effective landscape-scale conservation of habitat.
There is still time for BLM to build an approach that balances conservation and other land use. The plans for the sage-grouse habitat must be strengthened so they implement proactive, science-based conservation measures, and streamlined to provide a cohesive and consistent framework across the sagebrush landscape.
The public can help ensure that the federal government develops proactive plans that balance conservation of this vital wildlife habitat with responsible energy development and other public land use. President Barack Obama, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and the other federal agencies that work with BLM must know that Americans want the sage-grouse plans to provide cohesive conservation measures that protect the animal's habitat across public lands.
These actions can ensure a continued variety of use of public lands, including as habitat of the sage-grouse, which can continue to strut and fascinate generations to come.