BLM Plan to Protect Sage Grouse Limits Energy Production, Grazing


Ranchers are among those concerned a government plan to protect the greater sage grouse will further imperil production in Western states.

Thursday, the Biden administration put forward a plan to curtail cattle grazing, oil and gas drilling, mining, green energy projects, and other commercial activities across 67 million acres of the West’s great “sagebrush sea” in order to protect a threatened bird species. This plan has been years in the making and will amend 77 existing land use plans across the West while potentially designating millions of acres as sensitive sage grouse habitat off-limits to production.

Conflict Over Sage Grouse Protections Pit Environmentalists and Producers

Between 1965 and 2021, scientists say the number of greater sage grouse in Western states dropped 80%. They are at risk of being listed as an endangered species. For years now, environmentalists have faced off against productive industries over protections for the ground-nesting birds, which thrive in the sagebrush plains impacted in recent years by wildfires, drought, urban sprawl, and invasive grasses.

While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) outlined six strategies, the fifth alternative is its preferred option. This plan would bring back some Obama-era restrictions to drilling and other production activities while maintaining some of the 2019 Trump plan. Green energy projects, including wind and solar farms, would also be impacted, presumably imperiling President Joe Biden’s promise to produce 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federal lands by 2025.

During his administration, President Trump attempted to roll back some of the most severe sage grouse restrictions during his tenure in an effort to balance conservation and production needs, but federal judges repeatedly blocked his efforts in court.

Under the preferred plan, 2.5 million new acres would be subject to the most restrictive sage grouse protections, bringing the total amount of Western land designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) to nearly 35 million acres. Some read the plan as designating up to 11.1 million acres as new ACECs. The plan would also require unified management of the bird across state borders and that green energy projects be deployed away from sensitive sage grouse habitat.

Ranching Groups Say Grazing Benefits Bird Habitat

Pro-grazing and energy production groups worry the “one size fits all” approach will harm American jobs and sovereignty, locking up resources in a short-sighted, anti-holistic focus on one species.

Grazing advocates have long held that such efforts are misguided to begin with: ruminant grazing existed in the natural development of North American grassland ecosystems. In the days when millions of greater sage grouse filled the skies above Western prairies, intensive grazing from large herds of buffalo, antelope, elk, and deer pre-European settlement must necessarily have played a harmonious role. Removing cattle from public lands now, these advocates say, ignores a long past of ruminant grazing in the American West.

A recent 10-year study by the University of Idaho found that managed livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse — even beneficial. The study found that grazing bolsters sage grouse populations by improving insect diversity and biomass, reducing wildfire risk, and removing the invasive grasses such as cheatgrass that have so imperiled sagebrush plains in recent years.

Western Industries at Stake

The new BLM plan stands to impact 67 million acres of public land administered by the BLM across 10 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Officials claim the preferred fifth alternative strikes a balance between lax federal action and extreme productivity restriction in an effort to balance industry needs. By contrast, the third alternative is the most restrictive. This plan would bar grazing on federal land and mandate more fencing around BLM land. Analysts pointed out this option could cause “possible habitat fragmentation, increased collision risks, increased opportunities for predators,” and said removing grazing would also lead to a fuel buildup and increase fire risk.

Environmentalist Groups: BLM Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Some conservation groups complain that the BLM’s preferred plan does not go far enough to protect sagebrush habitat. Vera Smith at Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement quoted by The New York Times that the BLM plan “still allows for oil and gas drilling, mining, and other activities — some of the biggest threats to the bird’s habitat.”

Sage Grouse Plans Open for Public Comment

Public comment on the sage grouse plan opened March 15, 2024 and will be received for 90 days. However, the proposed new ACECs are only subject to public comment for 60 days. Learn more about how to leave a comment at

The BLM plans to host 13 public meetings to answer questions and receive additional comments. See the events column on the BLM website home page for information.

The comment period will be open until June 13, 2024. An environmental impact statement will be released this fall, then Records of Decision from each state.

In light of the importance of this ruling for the industry, groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the Public Lands Council (PLC) are requesting additional time to comment on the plan. Industry advocates say the plan has been many years in the making, and 90 days is insufficient to fully review and respond to such a sweeping and impactful proposal.

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