COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A groundbreaking Wyoming state program aimed at mapping and protecting millions of acres of greater sage grouse breeding grounds in Wyoming could be expanded to cover federally owned lands in 11 states across the West, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said this week.
"Absolutely that is very much a part of this initiative," Salazar told Land Letter during a brief interview Sunday following a speech at the Western Association of State Departments of Agriculture annual meeting here.
Salazar's comments followed the Bureau of Land Management's announcement last week that it will develop a National Greater Sage Grouse Planning Strategy to preserve the iconic and imperiled bird that once covered the sagebrush steppe of the northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions.
Citing the bird's steep decline over the past century, the Fish and Wildlife Service last year placed the sage grouse on its "candidate list" of species for Endangered Species Act protection, setting off a flurry of activity among government and private-sector stakeholders seeking to push the grouse back to healthy levels.
Nowhere has that effort been more pressing than Wyoming, which has more sage grouse than any other state.
Under policy implemented by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) and continued under Gov. Matt Mead (R), the state has set aside millions of acres that it deems to be "core areas" for sage grouse breeding and nesting, and all development that would destroy or degrade such areas is being steered to other areas.
According to senior Interior Department officials interviewed this week, BLM's new planning strategy could be equally sweeping.
Dwight Fielder, chief of BLM's division of fish, wildlife and plant conservation in Washington, D.C., said the agency is organizing several interagency planning and science teams that over the coming months will determine how the strategy will be implemented across the bird's 11-state range from Oregon to Colorado.
The effort is likely to include the completion of a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) evaluating specific strategies to protect the bird and its dwindling sagebrush steppe habitat, Fielder said. Such findings could be incorporated into as many as 70 resource management plans (RMPs) on BLM lands where grouse live.
"The end game is to have what the Fish and Wildlife Service terms 'adequate regulatory mechanisms' in place to protect the grouse," he said. "You can look at those regulatory mechanisms as conservation measures if you want, but those need to be imbedded into our land-use plans."
Everything will be on the table, Fielder said, including expanding Wyoming's "core sage grouse area" strategy across the West. That strategy is undergirded by a 2008 executive order from Freudenthal designating nearly 15 million acres that are critical to grouse survival and where development is discouraged.
Mead, elected as Freudenthal's successor last year, issued his own executive order in June upholding the core sage grouse area strategy, calling it a necessary step to save the chicken-like bird (Land Letter, June 9).
Expansive habitat area
BLM manages an estimated 57 million acres of sage grouse habitat -- roughly half the bird's total range and more than any federal or state agency. That's why Interior, "working hand-in-hand with the states," must take a lead role in protecting the bird, Salazar said.
"We're still working on the specifics of it, but we're basically making sure that development takes place, and the places that have the most sensitive areas for the sage grouse and the places with the best habitat for the sage grouse are in fact protected," he said. "It's going to be important for us to do that as we move forward with wind development as well as with oil and gas development and other public uses of lands."
A broadly based planning strategy could also help ease the concerns of environmentalists who argue that the sage grouse is teetering ever closer to extinction as more of its sagebrush steppe habitat is converted for livestock grazing, oil and gas development, wind-power farms and other forms of development.
"This plan is long overdue, and we still need to know what BLM intends to do for sage grouse," said Mark Salvo, director of WildEarth Guardians' Sagebrush Sea Campaign in Chandler, Ariz. "What prescriptions will it include for energy development, livestock grazing, and cheatgrass control? The devil is in the details."
Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Idaho, said a programmatic EIS for all land-use activities in sage grouse habitat is a long overdue idea, and one that will probably result in difficult choices.
"What's been holding them up?" Marvel asked. "I think what's been holding them up is that they're very concerned about the outcome, because the outcome of the studies likely will be negative for oil and gas development, livestock grazing, wind power and electric transmission as well as off-road vehicle use. All of those things come into much sharper focus as threats to sage grouse if there's a full analysis."
Fielder said the agency is prepared to make tough decisions if the science indicates that wholesale land management changes are necessary to save sage grouse. "We certainly want to maintain maximum managerial discretion about how we manage BLM lands through this process," he said. "But I'm sure there are going to be some tough decisions made."
While the energy industry has generally supported Wyoming's core grouse area strategy, some industry officials and legal experts have concerns about expanding the approach to other states.
Kent Holsinger, a Denver attorney who has represented the energy and agricultural sectors in litigation involving the Gunnison sage grouse, said he worries that such an approach could curtail development.
"The standards in Wyoming, unless something's changed since I looked at those core areas, contains restrictions on surface disturbance and time restrictions and all sorts of things, and I am really concerned that if that's extended across the West it will restrict development at a time when we need domestic energy and the economic activity is creates," Holsinger said. "It's disconcerting. And not just for energy development but for agriculture, utilities, transmission lines and roads. There are a ton of activities that could be restricted."
Spencer Kimball, manger of government affairs for Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade group, said much will depend on how the plan is implemented.
"New conservation measures, if adopted by BLM, must take into consideration both the economic needs of the states and the habitat needs of the sage grouse," Kimball said. "Oil and gas development and sage grouse have coexisted in the West for decades, so we're hopeful that whatever conservation measures are incorporated provide for long-term conservation of the species while allowing responsible energy development to continue in and around sage grouse habitat."
The National Greater Sage Grouse Planning Strategy comes one month after a group of top state wildlife agency officials in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming urged that BLM Director Bob Abbey take the lead on developing such a strategy.
"Because the BLM administers over 50 percent of the estimated sage-grouse habitat across its range, a large share of this responsibility falls on its shoulders. Thus, BLM must lead the way in reducing the major threats on their lands by developing a 'range-wide' programmatic EIS or some other regional approach to these regulatory mechanisms," the state regulators wrote in a June 21 letter to Abbey and other senior Interior officials.
Fielder, who outlined the planning strategy at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies summer conference earlier this month in Big Sky, Mont., said BLM has been discussing the rangewide conservation approach for more than a year.
The key, he said, will be successfully amending the 70 RMPs that cover some portion of the grouse's 11-state range. A significant hurdle is that 27 of the RMPs expected to include sage grouse provisions are already in an advanced stage of revision. Those changes are likely to be finalized long before the programmatic EIS on grouse habitat is completed.
Some RMPs already under revision in Wyoming, Montana and Oregon have included sage-grouse protection strategies and won't need to be included in any programmatic EIS. "It's possible that those ongoing revisions are on a good trajectory to get us where we want to go," he said.
But many other RMPs make no mention of sage grouse, and reopening the amendment process can take months, Fielder said.
"We're just struggling to find the most effective way to do this," he said. "We can't afford any false starts because of the time frames that are involved here. We want to make sure we get it right."
Bob Budd, chairman of the Wyoming governor's sage grouse implementation team that devised the original boundaries of the core sage grouse areas three years ago, said BLM is taking the right approach.
"BLM is not saying we're going to run the train, but we'll work collaboratively with the other states," Budd said. "I applaud that. It will work."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.