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Public comment period closing on sage grouse protections

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Suzanne Potter, Public News Service

The public comment period closes next week on the Biden administration’s plan to protect the sage grouse, a bird whose health is linked to the larger ecosystem called the Sagebrush Sea.

The species’ U.S. range runs through 10 states from northeast California and Nevada eastward to the Dakotas and Colorado.

Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife, said there is concern it may be on a trajectory toward extinction.

“Its range is about 50% of what it used to be,” Smith pointed out. “Its populations have declined about 80% over the last 60 years, and about 40% in the last 20 years.”

The sage grouse is considered a focal species, meaning as it declines, so likely do other species in its range, such as the pygmy rabbit, mule deer and pronghorn. The Obama administration released the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy in 2015, but the Trump administration weakened it four years later.

Smith argued the latest plans do not go far enough to shield the birds from disturbance. Instead, she advocated for limits on mining and at least a 4-mile buffer zone of protection in areas where sage grouse breed.

“That draft proposal makes some changes but in many ways sort of sets into concrete the amendments that the Trump administration put into place,” Smith noted. “The current proposal that is by the BLM is weaker than what was put forth in 2015.”

Public comment is open until June 13. The agency will release its final Environmental Impact Statement in the fall.

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