BLM sage grouse plan under review: Stakeholders urge Interior to base changes on science
December 20, 2017
Changes are on the discussion table for the 2015 sage grouse protection plan, prompting a number of associations and state legislators to urge officials to give the two-year-old plan more time to work, or at the least, make sure any changes are science based. Dec. 1 was the deadline to submit comments on an amended land use plan.
The Bureau of Land Management describes the sage grouse habitat as high desert at the western edge of the Great Basin. BLM officials have spent two years amending their initial land-use plan that affects the management of sage grouse habitat across millions of acres in 10 Western states.
"The latest Interior Department move is a notice of intent that calls for public input to help formulate a new plan, which almost certainly would threaten habitat for the grouse, mule deer, pronghorn, elk and hundreds of other species, and throw into doubt a policy that took a decade of compromise to formulate," said Ken Rait, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' western lands initiative. Pew Chartiable Trusts is the sole beneficiary of seven charitable funds established between 1948 and 1979 by children of Sun Oil Co. founder Joseph Newton Pew and his wife.
"The department is also pursuing this new course before the 2015 plans even have a chance to take hold. While it's possible they could be improved with some minor modifications, they must be based on current, credible science."
The original habitat management plan was created through a collaborative effort that included all stakeholders — landowners, sportsmen, elected officials, industry representatives and conservationists.
Agricultural groups, former wildlife agency leaders, scientists and others say any changes to BLM's sage grouse conservation efforts should be based on science and focused on the sagebrush habitat that supports 350 species.
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In a letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke, DOI staff and the BLM, more than 100 wildlife and natural resources professionals urged the administration to stick to the science while considering amending the current federal sage grouse conservation plans finalized in summer of 2015. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's landmark decision not to list greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered that same year was predicated, in part, on the effectiveness of these plans for millions of acres of the bird's core habitat.
Many consider this to be the greatest landscape-scale conservation planning effort of modern times.
"In the many years I worked as a wildlife agency director, I learned that strong cooperation between state and federal agencies is essential for successful wildlife management, and the collective compromise that kept the greater sage grouse off of the threatened and endangered species list is a shining example of wildlife management done right," said Willie Molini, former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "I believe that it would be best to let the existing sage grouse habitat plans work for a couple of years before any significant changes are considered."
The letter asks that the plans be implemented and analyzed for effectiveness before they are altered.
If amendments are going to be considered, the group says they should be supported by science and maintain strong conservation outcomes for sage grouse.
"We do not support weakening restrictions on development within priority habitat and feel any such actions would not be supported scientifically," they wrote.
"We have a long way to go to keep that 'not warranted for listing' decision intact for sage grouse," said Jack Connelly, a former wildlife research biologist with the Idaho Game and Fish Department, who spent most of his 41-year career working on sage grouse habitat issues. "Major changes, delays, or management actions that are not supported by the best-available science could threaten the entire conservation strategy that got us to this point — and that level of coordination and planning was an exceptional accomplishment."
Hunting and fishing groups have been at the negotiating table and the group believes that some changes in the plan may be warranted.
"No land-use management plan — state nor federal — is perfect, so these plans should be improved upon over time," said Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "Some changes to the plans may be acceptable right now, as long as they are science-based and don't alter the entire course for conservation. We look forward to continuing to work with the Department of Interior and BLM to ensure sage grouse conservation is effective and also works for stakeholders across the West."
The Montana Farm Bureau also submitted comments on the proposed plan. The organization encouraged the DOI to make several improvements to the plan in order to make it more workable for multiple-use lands.
TOO MANY RESTRICTIONS
The plan calls for minimum stubble height requirements on perennial grass and other types of vegetation during certain times of the year. According to MFB, the restrictions limit the extent to which ranchers can graze their animals on public lands, since grazing beyond a certain point risks leaving the grass below the minimum height specified in the plan. In many cases prairie grass doesn't reach the proposed minimum height, especially in dry years or years following drought.
The plan also sets requirements on new structures, including fencing, on lands covered by the plan. MFB says this requirement curtails placement of management structures, such as fences, windmills, and various water developments, that are essential for ranching and farming.
A 1.2 mile restriction on permanent facilities also is a concern, according to MFB. The restrictions effectively prohibit the construction and use of certain facilities in certain areas, including corrals and water tanks.
The plan also calls for mandatory removal of livestock ponds in certain perennial channels, if the pond is deemed to have a negative effect of riparian habitats.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead gave his 2 cents on the plan in October, when BLM announced the agency will no longer consider removing millions of acres of land for hard rock mining in sage grouse habitat across six states. This action means 265,000 acres in Wyoming will not be withdrawn from hard rock mining.
"The BLM's original proposal put at risk potential future development that could have brought the state millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs. That proposal was unnecessary because Wyoming already has a system in place that protects sage grouse while allowing for development of these minerals," Mead said. "I thank Secretary Zinke for cancelling the proposal."
The BLM also announced then that the agency would be taking public comment on the federal Greater sage grouse management plans. Wyoming is home to approximately 42 percent of the range-wide population.
"We're roughly two years into having sage grouse not listed under the Endangered Species Act. This is a good thing for the bird and energy development. As BLM looks to make changes to its federal plans, I would encourage the agency to find ways to better align with Wyoming's state plan," Mead said. "Folks representing energy, agriculture, recreation and conservation all came together to help frame the state's plan to ensure a strong habitat for sage grouse in Wyoming. There are positive changes that can be made to the federal plans, but we should be careful and thoughtful about how we do that."
Groups pushing for more restriction also stepped up with their comments to the Interior.
The Western Watersheds Project, which filed the original lawsuit attempting to list the bird as endangered, claim it is on the verge of extinction without a stronger plan.
Rebecca Fischer, with Wild Earth Guardians called the DOI's state-by-state approach "appalling."
"This ignores the need to consider the species' needs at a range-wide scale and will result in the failure to apply strong and consistent protections," she said.