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DOI alters sage-grouse plan

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Aug 11, 2017

— Grazing noted as valuable tool

A greater sage-grouse hen in Wyoming's Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.
USFWS photo by Tom Koerner

In the ongoing saga to effectively manage habitat for greater sage-grouse, a Department of Interior (DOI) Sage-grouse Review Team (Team) presented a report to DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke outlining possible modifications to previous conservation plans and policies.

The review was in response to Zinke’s Order 3353, issued June 7, regarding the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) 2015 Greater Sage-grouse Plans (SGPs). The aim of the order, according to a DOI press release is to “improve sage-grouse conservation and to strengthen communication and collaboration between states and the federal government.”

After accepting the team’s report (http://tinyurl.com/DOI-SGP), Zinke directed DOI Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to ensure implementation of the recommendations and to direct the BLM, in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and other offices in the department, to “immediately begin implementing the short- and long-term recommendations in the report.”

Zinke continued, in his memo to Bernhardt, saying that as part of the effort, the BLM should collaborate with the Sage-grouse Task Force (SGTF) to engage with stakeholders and to improve the compatibility of the 2015 SGPs with states.

The executive summary said that the DOI team and SGTF “are committed to a balanced approach that provides both responsible economic development and longterm conservation of the greater sage-grouse.” And while addressing issues including oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing and wildland fire and invasive species management, the review groups acknowledged that the issues and options outlined do not apply to each state and do not represent a consensus from all states. Importantly, they said, the ideas presented are not “one size fits all.”

Reacting to the report, the Public Lands Council (PLC) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) issued a statement by PLC President Dave Eliason saying, “During an initial review of the report, I was encouraged by several key priorities including the compatibility of proper grazing management and conservation.”

Eliason continued, “The report acknowledges the need for a more collaborative approach between grazing permittees and federal leadership, as well as a reexamination of the Habitat Objectives Table and its application—both key elements to successful conservation efforts for the greater sage-grouse. The report also reinforced the need to pursue outcome-based grazing demonstration projects and targeted grazing pilot projects, two critical tools for responsive management of ecosystems and fuel loads. The Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association stand ready to collaborate with the Department of the Interior moving forward.”

With approximately 15 million acres of core populations habitat, the state of Wyoming clearly has a stake in discussions regarding sage-grouse management.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) told WLJ, “Greater sagegrouse management is such an important issue in Wyoming and our communities because of its broad-ranging effects on energy development, ranching, agriculture, conservation and recreational access. What we need is a balanced approach that protects the sagegrouse without unduly burdening those who rely on the use of the land for their livelihood.”

Enzi said he appreciated Zinke and the DOI for working in collaboration with the states to review federal sage-grouse plans, and added, “While the report’s proposed changes to increase flexibility for land managers, streamline permissions for land use and clarify standards all appear like common sense moves in the right direction, I do have concerns that not all of the recommendations line up with Wyoming’s management plan.”

He explained that Wyoming has worked hard with local stakeholders and the federal government over the years to create a balanced plan to manage its own populations of greater sagegrouse. “Governor [Matt] Mead has clearly stated his concerns with the federal recommendations and I would encourage the Department of the Interior to continue working with the state to address these concern,” Enzi concluded.

Mead reacted to the report, saying, “Secretary Zinke and the Department of the Interior made an earnest effort to collaborate with the states during the sage-grouse management review. The states have primacy over sage-grouse management and Wyoming’s plan is solid and should be allowed to work.”

He noted that the Wyoming approach balances energy, agriculture, conservation and recreation and that the federal plans do not fully implement the Wyoming approach. “While DOI identifies numerous ways to improve federal plans, I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding. Industry needs predictability, but the report does not explain fully how population targets provide that certainty. Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species. I will continue to work with Secretary Zinke, state and local stakeholders on this issue,” Mead said.

Mead’s office told WLJ that he agrees that properly managed livestock grazing is a benefit to the land and wildlife habitats. Additionally, he sees agriculture as a key piece of sage-grouse management—a positive factor—and will continue to make his views in support of agriculture known.

The state of Idaho also has large areas of sagegrouse habitat, and responding to the DOI report, Gov. Butch Otter provided a statement to WLJ, saying, “I am encouraged by Interior Secretary Zinke’s commitment to work with the western states to improve the federal sage-grouse plans across the range. This is an appropriate step toward empowering Idaho to proactively manage and conserve sage-grouse populations while preserving the customs and culture of the state.”

Otter added that there is still much work to be done, saying, “My staff and I stand ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the Department of the Interior to bring the federal plans into alignment with Idaho’s sciencebased conservation plan.”

Looking further into what the plan could mean for livestock producers, especially recommendations related to grazing, Ethan Lane, executive director of PLC and NCBA Federal Lands, told WLJ the recommendations are the result of conversations between PLC and BLM going back to the end of the Obama administration.

“Those plans cited impacts of improper grazing but don’t cite the benefits of proper grazing on sagegrouse habitat. That is really important because we know that grazing is a real benefit to sage-grouse when used properly and that grazing can have benefits to reduce some of the other threats like wildfires,” Land said. He went on to say that there is finally some acknowledgement that the ways the state plans were originally created didn’t allow managers on the ground to use grazing as a tool to the greatest extent.

“What you are seeing in this report is a first step in getting those plans adjusted to make sure that they are providing the most benefit possible to sage-grouse while not taking critical tools like grazing out of the toolbox,” Lane told WLJ.

The management plans developed by the western states with sage-grouse habitat were often hobbled by federal regulations. Lane said that as written, the federal plans did not take state plans into account, limiting flexibility in decision making.

The different regulations are particularly cumbersome when sage-grouse habitat covers contiguous private and federal land. Lane said this could result in good management on the private (state-regulated) side, and a rancher or land manager then faced with restrictions that prohibit the same management extending onto federal ground.

“Having some consistency there will make sure that the mansgers on the ground, the stewards of the land— the ranchers—have the ability to really optimize the conservation of the sagegrouse.

Appendix A of the report outlines several discussions regarding proper livestock grazing including modifying grazing permits. The shortterm action point here is to reinforce or offer training on how to modify permits as described in the current guidelines.

Additionally, Appendix A says that current instruction memorandums should be revised to “clearly articulate that proper livestock grazing can be beneficial to manage GRSG [greater sage-grouse] habitat.”

Zinke’s directive to Bernhardt requires him to provide periodic—not less than every six months—updates on the progress made in implementing the report recommendations. — Rae Price, WLJ editor

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