How long will the sage grouse dance? part two


Continued from How long will the sage grouse dance? part one


Erik Molvar commented, “In every state where there are major threats to Sage Grouse, there is pandering to local politics, which are often in the pockets of oil and gas or coal interests.


“For example, in Wyoming, where there are proposals for oil and gas wells, the land allocated for a lek is only 0.6 miles. It had previously been determined that it should be at least four miles, so this is woefully inadequate.”


WildEarth Guardians had insisted at the beginning that the Sage Grouse was an Endangered Species and should be so listed, and that the decision should be based on science.


When it became clear that this listing was not going to happen, they worked together with other groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on an alternate plan to protect the Sage Grouse.


But, disappointingly, the plan drawn up is very weak and provides inadequate protections. According to Erik Molvar, “The federal plans are weak and are going to prove completely inadequate to provide the Sage Grouse with adequate protection – not even on the lands which have been scientifically established as priority areas, which really are the minimal areas needed for the survival of the Sage Grouse.”


The USFWS has listed the Alton lek area as a priority habitat management area under the new federal plans. The proposal to lease this land for coal development runs counter to this USFWS designation. So Erik Molvar expects that “Alton will be one of the first real tests” for whether or not the federal Sage Grouse plans are strong enough to be upheld or whether they will fall to fossil fuel special interests.


Strip mining not in the public interest


He noted that it’s important to understand that “these lands and these resources belong to the American public, and it is not in the public’s interest to strip mine these for coal extraction, which will further global warming, even as they destroy the most essential Sage Grouse habitats.”


IMG_8651Because the public comment period has ended, he suggests writing a Letter to the Editor of Utah newspapers. It is never too late to speak up for the protection of wildlife and to work to prevent wrongs being done to them. The decision of the BLM as to whether or not to allow the Alton Coal Plant to do strip mining, which would destroy the Sage Grouse and their land, is expected sometime within the next couple of months, but it could come at any time – or sooner, or later – no one knows.


Comments sent in to the BLM by WildEarth Guardians


This past August, WildEarth Guardians sent Comments to the Bureau of Land Management Kanab Office, which is charged with making the decision on the coal mine expansion. These Comments were signed by Erik Molvar on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, as well as the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Utah Birders.


Among a great many valid observations, these Comments point out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated in October 2014, in a memorandum to the BLM, that Sage Grouse nesting grounds are typically located at least five miles away from their lek. This means that at least five or six miles need to be allowed as a buffer zone in order to protect the Sage Grouse. In this case, however, the Sage Grouse habitat is only 1.2 miles from the proposed strip mining activities of the Alton Coal Mine, which is entirely inadequate and not based on science. The Comments conclude that the Sage Grouse population there “is indeed likely to be extirpated.”


This area in Utah is one of the quietest and most remote areas of the U.S. Sage Grouse are sensitive birds that live among the waving sagebrush far from human habitation. Strip mining in this area will create a situation that simply is not viable for the Sage Grouse, for many reasons.


IMG_8671Harm to plants and food sources


The birds live entirely on sagebrush and insects. Road dust from heavy coal transportation trucks driving back and forth all day will cover the surrounding vegetation in layers of dust. The plants will deteriorate, as will the Sage Grouse who depend on them. In addition, mine-related ozone pollution will further harm the plants. The browning and stunting of plants will impact all other wildlife, including deer, elk, and other herbivores. Predators further up the food chain will in turn be affected. Human beings in towns to the west and south will also be breathing this polluted air.


Loud noise and soil crust destruction


This wild area is characterized by extensive soil crusts, formed over many centuries, which “reduce wind and water erosion.” Strip mining would entirely destroy these soil crusts, leading to erosion and to the sinking of what little water there is in this dry area deep into the earth, further debilitating plants and depriving plants and animals of surface water. This would destroy the sagebrush and leave the area barren, to be taken over by cheat grass, an invasive species which provides no nutrition for native birds and animals. The Comments state: “Re-vegetation and natural weathering would eventually reform new soil structures with the reclaimed soils, although this would be a long-term process (hundreds of years) in the arid environment present in the tract.”


Continued in part three


Top photo: © Silverpineranch /, a female sage grouse.

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Zion National Park, one of five national protected areas in Kane County.

Third photo: Sharon St Joan / Coal dust pollutes small streams like this one in Kane County, Utah.

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