Mixed reviews for BLM sage grouse conservation guidance

Jan 6, 2012

In an effort to prevent an endangered listing of the greater sage grouse, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Dec. 27 released two internal memoranda (IMs) that instruct local BLM offices how to manage activities in order to protect the iconic, lowflying game bird whose elaborate mating rituals have made it a favorite of photographers and wildlife enthusiasts.

“The aim of these science-based measures is to maintain and restore flourishing populations of greater sage grouse and sagebrush habitat,” BLM Director Bob Abbey stated in an agency press release. “We are working to do this in a way that protects the health of our land, while also facilitating safe and responsible energy development and recreational opportunities that power our economy. By proactively addressing sage grouse conservation concerns on BLM lands, we also hope to maintain the widest possible range of options for our neighboring landowners.”

One memo guides incorporation of sage grouse conservation measures into long-term regional land use plans, while the other gives interim guidance for activities while the land use plan revision process—which can take several years—moves forward. BLM has set a deadline of FY 2014 for revision of the plans.

Out of the approximately 47 million acres across the West thought to be inhabited by sage grouse, 50 percent is on BLM land, making BLM a key player in the conservation effort. Reflecting BLM’s large stake in the issue, the new instructions will have a wide reach, affecting 68 separate BLM “land use plan units” across 10 western states where the greater sage grouse is found: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, the Dakotas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

The IMs give BLM instruction on how to assess and manage actions that could affect sage grouse and their habitat, specifically in “preliminary priority habitat” where the grouse breed, raise their chicks and winter. Grazing, vegetation management, leasable minerals, water development, fences and recreation are among the activities and installations that will receive closer scrutiny to ensure that they are in compliance with BLM conservation objectives.

The public lands grazing industry has been closely tracking the development of the new sage grouse guidance, previously expressing concern that overly burdensome restrictions on livestock grazing could eliminate seasonal grazing for public lands ranchers. The interim IM, however, has taken an arguably balanced line on the issue of grazing. Although it states that excessive grazing can damage sage grouse habitat, it recognizes that “grazing practices can also be used as a tool to protect intact sagebrush habitat and increase habitat extent and continuity which is beneficial to Greater Sage-Grouse and its habitat.”

Public Lands Council (PLC) Executive Director Dustin VanLiew expressed restrained optimism over the memo’s treatment of grazing.

“By and large, it doesn’t appear to be as negative as it could have been,” Van- Liew said. “[It] appears to allow for management of the sage grouse in conjunction with continued grazing. … They do recognize that grazing can persist along with sage grouse habitat, and even enhance sage grouse habitat.”

Although PLC plans on submitting further comment on the new policy, VanLiew was also pleased that the memos emphasized the importance of open spaces to the recovery of the sage grouse, a point Van- Liew takes to be rancher friendly.

“Specifically, [BLM’s] number one priority is to protect unfragmented habitats, and minimiz[e] habitat loss,” VanLiew said. “[F]rom the rancher’s point of view, we’re the number one reason for unfragmented habitats across the western landscape, and keeping our ranches intact with access to public lands grazing is the number one driver in the West to maintaining those unfragmented habitats. So we believe that our industry and grazing is consistent with sage grouse habitat, and protecting that habitat into the future.”

Yet some environmental groups were frankly disappointed with BLM’s actions to protect sage grouse, claiming that the internal guidance didn’t go nearly far enough in restricting activities and setting explicit limits. Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, complimented BLM’s National Technical Team (NTT) of sage grouse experts for setting strict guidelines in a recent report, but he complained that the IMs fail to require NTT’s explicit measures by saying that certain restrictions should only be “considered,” not implemented.

“In cases where local BLM land managers want to do more to protect sage grouse, they will find ample encouragement for stronger protections,” Molvar stated in a press release. “In cases where BLM officials want to ignore the welfare of sage grouse and ram through projects that are detrimental, there will be little in the new policy to stop them. The interim policy is written with such loose language that BLM officials will have the latitude to do anything they want or nothing at all to protect the grouse.”

NTT was formed in 2010 to identify management standards for the bird following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designation of the sage grouse as “warranted but precluded” for an endangered listing. Twenty-three biologists representing a number of federal and state agencies, including BLM, FWS, U.S. Geological Survey and Natural Resource Conservation Service, were included in the research group.

According to a report in the Billings Gazette, while Molvar extolled NTT as an “all-star team” of biologists, he complained that their findings are not being enforced by the IMs.

“The BLM got a very strong consensus on what sage grouse need according to the science,” Molvar told the Gazette. “But that has been watered down … by various political interests.”

Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project of Hailey, ID, was likewise frustrated by what he saw as a lack of measurable requirements in the documents.

“Nowhere in here does it provide any direction other than giving these very general ideas to evaluate certain activities,” Marvel told the Gazette. “The BLM is missing in action here, and they’re failing in their job to protect this species from further decline.”

A series of 26 scoping meetings will be held throughout the West during January to allow interested parties to comment on proposed changes to local land use plans for the purpose of sage grouse conservation. Information on locations and times can be found on the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy website at www.blm.gov/sagegrouse. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent