The Conservation Column
By Pepper Trail
This column is filled with promising news. Not fully achieved victories, but definitely promising. And that feels pretty good.
The Griffin Half Moon Timber Sale Halted
In early October, a federal judge halted the 900-acre Griffin Half Moon timber sale on the edge of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument for failing to properly assess its impact on Great Gray Owls.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of the project was “arbitrary and capricious,” which means logging cannot proceed until the plan is revised.
The Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council filed a lawsuit claiming the project would harm the Pacific Fisher, which requires dense canopy closure, and the Great Gray Owl, which relies on older forest stands.
Aiken adopted U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke’s earlier recommendation to block the project for violating the National Environmental Policy Act, dismissing the BLM’s objections that the case was analyzed under the wrong legal standards. Clarke had ruled with the environmental plaintiffs regarding the Great Gray Owl but rejected their arguments about the Pacific Fisher, a carnivore in the same family as the weasel.
BLM’s broad “resource management plan” for 1.2 million acres of BLM land in the region dedicates “a large network of reserve lands for Great Gray Owls” and expects their habitat to improve, but the agency didn’t analyze the project’s particular effects on the species, Clarke said.
The agency’s decision record “contains no meeting notes, memos, reports or other documentation” that it specifically considered site-specific impacts on the owls, he noted.
Susan Jane Brown, an attorney for the environmental nonprofits, argued that BLM was required to conduct an updated examination instead of relying on the resource management plan.
“We can’t know if there were changed circumstances since 2016 because the BLM never actually looked,” she said.
Enhanced Protections Possible for Greater Sage-Grouse
The just-released Senate FY 22 Interior Appropriations bill removes a provision exempting protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the once-abundant but now rapidly declining Greater Sage-Grouse. The House of Representatives has already passed an Interior bill without the rider. Conservation groups are urging that the rider remain out of the final spending agreement. “Our thanks to Senators Jeff Merkley and Patrick Leahy for showing exemplary conservation leadership by excluding the sage-grouse rider from the Interior bill,” said Steve Holmer, Vice President of Policy for American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “This exemption has been in place for nearly seven years. It’s time to once again give the grouse the possibility of ESA protection and the safety net it deserves.” The Greater Sage-Grouse is the keystone species of sagebrush habitat in the American West. Conserving the grouse also supports 350 other species of conservation concern, including the Pronghorn, Pygmy Rabbit, Mule Deer, native trout, and nearly 200 migratory and western bird species.
As many as 16 million Greater Sage-Grouse once occurred across 297 million acres of sagebrush grasslands in the West. Today, the sagebrush biome and grouse populations continue to decline. Sage-grouse habitat is less than half of what it once was, diminished by invasive species, roads, overgrazing, mining, energy development, agricultural conversion, and fires. The grouse’s populations have declined 80 percent range-wide since 1965 and nearly 40 percent since 2002.
“A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study provides an excellent re-source to understand the magnitude of Greater Sage-Grouse loss, as well as the likelihood that grouse populations will continue to decline,” said Holmer. “It also shows that the species’ range will continue to con-tract absent substantial new conservation measures.” The USGS report indicates that current management plans and other regulatory mechanisms are not sufficient to arrest the grouse’s ongoing decline, and that additional conservation measures are needed to stabilize the population. “Efforts to revive the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy can best be accomplished, and will have a greater chance of success, if the Endangered Species Act listing moratorium is ended,” said Holmer.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act Restored
In late September, the Biden Administration announced that it plans to reverse a harmful rule change that under-mined the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), as well as undertake a new initiative to reduce accidental but prevent-able bird deaths. “We are encouraged that protections for migratory birds are on track to be restored, and where possible advanced, using techniques we know can reduce bird mortality,” says Mike Parr, President of American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “Our thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for proposing this rule and for providing leadership to conserve millions of migratory birds each year.” The last Administration had issued a significant rollback of the MBTA, overturning decades of bipartisan precedent at a time when our bird populations are in peril. The rollback removed the incentive to avoid and minimize harm to birds from industrial hazards, and limited accountability and recovery after incidents such as oil spills. Recent research has revealed that North America’s bird populations have declined by 3 billion birds since 1970. “To respond to the loss of 3 billion birds, we must restore federal protections and go even further to strengthen protections for migratory birds,” says Steve Holmer, Vice President of Policy for ABC. “This proposed rulemaking will ultimately protect birds by utilizing best management practices such as installing screens that prevent birds from falling into oil pits and turning off tower lights to reduce collisions.” The rule weakening the MBTA had faced widespread opposition from more than 25 states, 30 tribes, treaty partner Canada, and hundreds of thousands of people, while a federal court vacated the legal opinion underpinning this rule. “We urge the Biden Administration to go even further to bring back bird populations,” says Holmer. “A permitting program would advance bird conservation efforts and increase regulatory certainty, and can also be effectively implemented. “Beyond this, we urge passage of the Migratory Bird Protection Act (MBPA) to help safeguard the MBTA and its necessary and longstanding protections for the future. The MBPA supports a common-sense permitting framework that will advance best management practices, benefiting birds while expanding certainty under the law.”
Here’s hoping for more good news – and more definitive victories – to come!