BLM Protections for Sage Grouse may not hit the ground for 10, possibly 20 years.
Resource Management Plans Won’t Affect Already Permitted Activities
With a decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) about whether sage grouse should receive Endangered Species Act protection due by 2015, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has begun a process to revise the Resource Management Plans (RMP’s) which dictate how resources are managed in many BLM districts across 11 different states. As part of this process several states, including Idaho, Utah, and Nevada have formed Task Forces to create alternatives to be considered in the revision process. Unfortunately all of these Task Forces are comprised primarily of industry representatives who are more concerned with mitigating the impact that sage grouse protections might have on industry rather than mitigating the impact that industry might have on sage grouse protections. As a result, the alternatives that come out of these Task Forces are unlikely to provide any meaningful protections for sage grouse but, as The Wildlife News has come to understand, even the minimal protections that may come from the revised RMP’s are not likely to have any effect on the ground for an additional 10 years.
It is a false presumption to assume that changes made to the RMP’s would have any effect on grazing permits that are undergoing review now, before the RMP’s are revised. Grazing permits that are finalized before the revisions are in effect for 10 years under the current, unrevised RMP’s and there is a rush to renew as many as possible before the RMP revisions are finished. Furthermore, many grazing permits are renewed under Congressional riders inserted into unrelated legislation so that the agencies don’t have to conduct the normally required NEPA analysis. To add further insult, Congress is considering the Grazing
Improvement Entrenchment Act which could lengthen the terms of grazing permits to 20 years. All of this ends up locking in harmful grazing practices onto the landscape for 10 to 20 years. Little, if anything, would likely change to address conflicts with grazing. It is obviously an inadequate regulatory mechanism for protection of sage grouse.
One example of the intransigence of the BLM was illustrated to us yesterday during a meeting with the BLM. The BLM, as a result of litigation brought by Western Watersheds Project over the failure of the BLM to properly analyze the effects that livestock grazing has on sage grouse, has a deadline of 2014 for completing grazing permit renewals on 68 allotments in the Owyhee Field Office. Because of this deadline the BLM claims it does not have enough time to analyze any of projects which could actually help sage grouse such as planting sage brush in areas that have been seeded with crested wheatgrass resulting in great harm to sage grouse in several areas. Even when we offered to work with the BLM to extend the deadline ordered by the court, the BLM said no. It appears they want to solidify the desires of the ranchers on these allotments before the revised RMP’s are issued.
Ongoing Efforts to Prevent Listing are Designed to Fail.
The Wildlife News has been covering this issue for years and recently we have written about how we see the efforts to protect sage grouse are likely to play out. Ranchers, who have traditionally held sway over the actions of the BLM, are vigorously pushing for large scale vegetation treatments, prescribed fire, prescribed grazing, and many other counterproductive projects which have negative impacts on the health of sage grouse habitat and usually end up spreading weeds and increasing fire frequency. The agencies and the ranchers are doing everything in their power to avoid addressing the underlying cause for sage grouse declines across the west, livestock grazing and the infrastructure and projects associated with livestock grazing. Some agency personnel are even acting as surrogates for the livestock industry and actively saying that livestock grazing is not as large of a threat as fire, development and invasive species are even though they are primarily responsible for increasing those threats across a large part of the landscape.
Now that Idaho, Nevada, and Utah are following the lead of the Wyoming Task Force, that started this trend of Governor appointed, industry heavy task forces, many of the underlying assumptions that the original core habitat strategy embodied are being questioned. While the Executive Order which implements Wyoming sage grouse core strategy limits disturbance to 5% in core sage grouse habitat, the initial area that this strategy was originally designed to protect, the Powder River basin of northeast Wyoming, is seeing severe declines to the point that Sage grouse are on the edge of functional extinction in northeast Wyoming. This strategy arbitrarily defines core habitat based on distances from active leks, or strutting grounds of grouse, which have 80% of the breeding males counted each year. In essence, the strategy only protects 80% of the sage grouse which basically ensures that the 20% that doesn’t receive any habitat protection will be extirpated. This is not good enough and the protections that may be implemented in the revised RMP’s are not likely to be seen on the ground for 10-20 years.
Indications so far from the Idaho Task Force are that grazing will not be scrutinized very heavily and one of the conservation voices indicated that the weak recommendations of the National Technical Team (NTT) Report may be sufficient to protect sage grouse even though they fall far short of what is needed. In other words, they see the NTT report as adequate while others on the Task Force want to weaken protections even further.
Implications of possible sage grouse listing finally hits the radar of regional media
One effect of all of this activity is that regional media is starting to finally understand the implications of a potential decision to list the species.
Idaho Task Force Tackles Sage Grouse Issues.
Spotted Owl listing could pale in comparison to Sage Grouse | Reno Gazette-Journal | rgj.com.
Sage grouse is becoming Utah’s spotted owl | The Salt Lake Tribune.
Land managers, ranchers working to avert Big Open’s sage grouse from listing | Great Falls Tribune | greatfallstribune.com.
Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.
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In the case of the 68 Owyhee allotments there hasn’t been any NEPA conducted since they issued permits in the late 90’s without doing any NEPA. I don’t know whether they have ever had any NEPA analysis but now the BLM wants to rush through the NEPA process before any additional protections for sage grouse are in place.
I attended the Idaho Task Force meeting yesterday and the group was told by the USFWS that any existing disturbance on the landscape, say a road in the Owyhee desert where they say sage grouse are doing okay at present, would not be included in the 3-5% disturbance limit that might be imposed there. In other words, there could be an additional 3-5% disturbance on top of what is already there. Problem is, if you look at the data, sage grouse aren’t doing so well. They’re declining just about everywhere.
What happens legally if the USFWS delays the decision, is there any recourse for the plaintiffs other than suing again?
Do you think the USFWS, BLM, and state task forces are doing nothing because they’re counting on the same Congress that delisted the gray wolf to follow suit and exclude the sage grouse from being listed?