Idaho sage grouse taskforce scrutinizing grazing areas

Jun 22, 2012

A decision to designate sage grouse as an endangered species is gaining more attention in Idaho where ranchers could be adversely impacted if livestock grazing on public lands is sharply restricted to protect the bird’s habitat.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s sage grouse task force completed its recommendations for a conservation plan a week before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service conducted a June 19 workshop to address the controversial issue in Twin Falls.

The Idaho task force recommended regulatory mechanisms to persuade the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), which has the ultimate authority, not to add sage grouse to the federal government’s endangered species list.

It proposed designating a Sage Grouse Management Area divided into three zones with different restrictions. “General habitat” would be very flexible, and “important habitat” would be slightly more restrictive.

However, in “core habitat,” major infrastructure projects like airports, transmission lines and wind generators would be prohibited with limited exceptions. In the “important” and “core” habitats, only protecting lives and structures would take precedence over protecting sage grouse in the event of a fire.

The task force proposes grazing assessments to start in core habitats to protect the birds. At the Twin Falls workshop, Boise-based BLM spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said if the sage grouse is listed as endangered, it would definitely change the way BLM manages public lands.

The task force also proposed limiting West Nile Virus, invasive species and other threats to the grouse. The BLM and Forest Service would enforce the plan proposed by Idaho, not the state, in addition to their other federal management

plans in Idaho.

While the state has jurisdiction on oil and gas development within its borders, counties have the say on transmission lines and other energy development potentially impacting sage grouse habitat.

Otter stated in a news release: “The task force members have done a great job putting together options for protecting sage grouse without the draconian restrictions that would be required by an endangered species listing. I will continue consulting with them throughout the upcoming public review and comment process.”

A two-week public comment period on the state’s sage grouse plan will start in late June. Submission of a final plan to the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture is anticipated by mid-July.

At the Twin Falls workshop, it was noted that sage grouse was identified as merited for endangered species listing in 2010, but US- FWS had to delay deciding the bird’s designation until 2015 because of other priorities.

Roy Allen, a veteran retired BLM economist now working for the Virginiabased ICF International consulting firm that conducted the workshop, said if sage grouse is listed as endangered, 22 BLM plans and eight Forest Service plans potentially would need to be amended in Idaho and southwest Montana.

BLM subregional envi ronmental

impact statements also would need to be amended were that to happen. A variety of range and sage grouse conservation measures would need to be investigated, too, he said.

The purpose of the Twin Falls workshop was to help determine possible social and economic impacts of a sage grouse endangered species designation, including effects on jobs, livestock and feed prices, income levels, government tax revenues, quality of life, housing, etc., factoring in the lands and resources managed by the BLM and Forest Service.

Grazing permits, public recreation areas, oil and gas leasing areas, timber land, sand, gravel and mining operations also could be affected.

Areas with significant amounts of sage grouse habitat could be significantly impacted, Allen said.

ICF Project Director Laura Ziemke said while Boise and Ada County do not play host to sage grouse habitat, the impact on smaller counties is not inconsequential.

Alllen noted that 44,688 were employed in Twin Falls County in 2010, earning $1.64 billion that year, which had a multiplier effect on the region’s economic activity.

Public comments on the potential impacts of considering sage grouse as endangered must be submitted to the BLM or Forest Service by July 19. —

Mark Mendiola,