Sage grouse dominates NV, CA cattlemens’ meetings

Nov 25, 2013

What do sage grouse, feral horses, drought, wildfire and yellowlegged frogs have in common? Any rancher who attended last week’s Nevada and California cattlemens’ public lands committee meetings might tell you he knows the answer: they all pose serious threats to the future of ranching on federal lands. While innocent in their own right, these forces are bringing about a regulatory and natural resource “perfect storm” that stands to wipe out a substantial part of the western ranching industry. At the center of the tempest: sage grouse.

The grouse was the focus of strategy discussions in Reno, NV, last week, where hundreds of ranchers gathered for the 78th annual joint convention and trade show of the California and Nevada cattlemens’ associations. Many of them hold grazing rights on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land. According to association staff, the public lands meetings on Thursday, Nov. 16, were some of the best attended in recent history.

The meetings kicked off with a 6:30 a.m. sage grouse session. The room was packed with industry leaders concerned with two recent federal actions on the bird. One action discussed at this strategy meeting was the land management agencies’ recent release of a draft land use plan amendment (LUPA) and draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the greater sage grouse in Nevada and northeast California. The other was the proposal to list as “threatened” the bi-state sage grouse, a subpopulation of the greater. The critical habitat proposal for that subpopulation includes 1.8 million acres in southwestern Nevada and central California.

In 2010, the greater sage grouse was identified by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A threatened or endangered listing of the grouse could have far-reaching and damaging effects on the livestock grazing industry in 10 western states.

According to livestock industry leaders, the proposed “threatened” listing of the bi-state subpopulation could be an ominous sign for FWS’ treatment of the greater population.

Although livestock grazing proponents and researchers have argued to the contrary, FWS has identified grazing as a “secondary threat” to the bird. Accordingly, as stated by a BLM official in the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association (NCA) public lands committee meeting, livestock grazing under the agencies’ LUPA/ DEIS preferred alternative “would be adjusted to meet habitat objectives.”

In an interview with WLJ, Ron Cerri, Co-chairman of NCA public lands committee, expressed concern with the direction the agencies seem to be going with regard to livestock grazing. He said that while grazing should be used as a tool to prevent wildfire, control invasive species, and promote healthy sage-steppe ecosystems, it would appear that the agencies are choosing instead to brand grazing as a threat to sage grouse. This approach is being promoted by anti-grazing groups such as Western Watersheds Project, he said.

“It shows me that we need to do a better job of telling who we are and what we do out there,” said Cerri, who ranches cattle outside of Orovada, NV. “Because keeping these ranches intact and economically viable is the only way to save the open spaces the grouse depends on.”

Cerri was one of the ranchers to speak out when Joe Tague, a Nevada BLM official, indicated that the agency may decide against removing excess feral horses from sage grouse areas before removing livestock— even though the LUPA/ DEIS identified horses as a threat. Earlier this year, BLM announced that horse removals would be brought to a minimum, despite their being far over appropriate management levels in many sage grouse areas.

“It’s not just cruel to the horses and bad for sage grouse. It’s putting family ranches out of business,” said Cerri.

“Political” reasons were cited for BLM’s refusal to remove excess feral horses.

Meanwhile, BLM’s Tague indicated that there “could be a 25 percent reduction in livestock grazing” in sage grouse areas. The agencies’ preferred alternative included a measure that would likely be used to facilitate such grazing reductions. The provision allows for “voluntary relinquishment” of grazing permits.

Brenda Richards, an Idaho rancher, questioned the agencies’ authority to include such a provision. Richards currently serves as Vice President of Public Lands Council (PLC), a Washington, DC,-based organization that represents ranchers with federal lands grazing rights. By law, she said, a grazing permit may be placed in temporary suspension, but grazing rights must be offered to another rancher should the current permit holder choose to relinquish them. Later, in an interview with WLJ, she explained that if “voluntary retirement” of grazing permits were to be made legal, it would open the door to intense pressure from radical anti-grazing groups— making permit relinquishment not so “voluntary.”

Richards, who is also the County Treasurer in Owyhee County, ID, encouraged ranchers at the sage grouse meeting to get their counties to comment on the LUPA and DEIS, or to endorse comments submitted by industry.

“The county commissioners have the most clout when it comes to talking about economic impacts,” she said. “With their elevated status as local governments, counties should definitely be weighing in.”

Comments on the LUPA/ DEIS are due Jan. 29. Between Dec. 3 and Dec.12, seven public meetings are scheduled in various Nevada and northeastern California locations. The expected date for finalization of the LUPA and DEIS is June of 2014. According to BLM officials, interested parties must comment in order to have standing for an appeal of the final decision.

To that end, PLC Sage Grouse Committee Chairman John O’Keeffe, a rancher from Adel, OR, encouraged everyone in attendance to visit grazingforgrouse. com as they formulate their comments. He said the website was created by PLC to serve as a comprehensive source of positive research related to grazing and sage grouse habitat, state plans, helpful court decisions and more. He added that, beyond commenting on agency proposals, PLC is working with its livestock affiliates across the West to come up with a “game plan” on sage grouse.

According to J.J. Goicoechea, NCA’s immediate past President and public lands Co-chair, the grazing industry in Nevada is taking a similarly proactive stance on both the greater and the bistate populations. Goicoechea, a commissioner for Eureka County, is also serving as Chairman of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council for Nevada. The statecreated council, which includes stakeholders such as local and tribal governments, ranchers and other multiple-use interests, is working to ensure that Nevada’s industries can remain economically viable while simultaneously conserving sage grouse habitat.

“We must be careful that we don’t put so many restrictions on grazing that we go backwards for the bird and its habitat,” said Goicoechea. BLM and USFS regulations aimed at preventing a listing, he indicated, could be just as damaging to grazing as a listing itself. Losing grazing, he said, would be a loss for sage grouse. To prevent such a scenario, Goicoechea said, “We are being proactive and no longer reactive.”

He cited as an example Nevada’s conservation credit system, which is being developed with oversight from the council. “It makes available a pot of money for projects that will improve our federal lands—projects such as preventing catastrophic wildfire,” he said.

“It could well end up being a model for other states to follow—not just for sage grouse conservation, but for other resource issues, as well.”

Meanwhile, ranchers and other local stakeholders must go all in to prevent a listing of the bi-state subpopulation, said Buck Parks, Adin, CA, rancher and Vice Chairman of the CCA public lands committee. While the aforementioned BLM and USFS LUPA applies only to federal lands, Parks said a “threatened” listing of the bi-state population would affect every kind of landowner—from private to state to federal. He feared a bi-state listing would be the roadmap for the greater. Comments on the bi-state listing and critical habitat proposal are due Dec. 27. The livestock industry intends to request an extension.

The bi-state listing proposal includes a measure known as the “4(d) special rule,” which would allow approved agriculture activities to continue without the threat of further regulation. In the event the bi-state population is listed and the 4(d) rule is implemented, said Goicoechea, industry must remain engaged to ensure that approved “proper grazing standards” are defined in a reasonable way.

Another key question, he said, is whether the 4(d) rule exemption would apply to ranchers on federal lands.

In bi-state discussions at CCA’s public lands committee meeting, Jack Hamby, a BLM official from California, acknowledged that there were more sage grouse in the area when livestock grazing was far more prevalent than it is today. Whatever the final decision on the bi-state, he emphasized the importance of ranchers’ submitting range monitoring data so that they may help the agencies defend future grazing decisions. Attendees were reminded that PLC has in place a memorandum of understanding with BLM and USFS that allows ranchers to do so. Efforts aimed at improving monitoring accuracy and consistency were also mentioned, including several projects directed by PLC and another funded by the Russell L. Rustici Rangeland & Cattle Research Endowment.

“Amidst all these efforts we’re making—collaborating, changing grazing practices voluntarily, submitting monitoring data, all of it—I just hope the agencies recognize all that we’re doing, as individuals and as an industry,” Parks said. “If they decide that more regulation is the only answer, well, you can add us to the growing number of businesses in this country that are being regulated out of existence. I know we’re not alone in that aspect—and that’s why we all need to stand together.” — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent