BLM issues long-awaited sage grouse implementation plans

By Scott Streater | 09/01/2016 01:24 PM EDT

The Obama administration today finalized guidance documents outlining exactly how federal land managers will implement provisions in sweeping greater sage grouse conservation plans covering 67 million acres in 10 Western states.

The seven instruction memorandums (IMs) issued today by the Bureau of Land Management come nearly a year after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in September 2015 finalized the federal plans, which amended 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans to include grouse protection measures.

The IMs will guide BLM as it implements the sage grouse conservation measures that will affect how livestock grazing, oil and natural gas drilling, mining, renewable energy development, and other activities are carried out on federal lands across the West.

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The IMs also include procedures to help BLM field offices track man-made disturbance activities in grouse habitat and collect data that will allow land managers to assess habitat conditions "at the local, regional and rangewide scales," the agency says.

One goal of the memos is to "show that there are some concrete actions" that, if applied consistently across the grouse’s enormous range, will "provide certainty that conservation will take place," Sarah Greenberger, a key adviser to Jewell on sage grouse, said in an interview.

Greenberger and BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis outlined details of the IMs yesterday to Greenwire.

The federal plans were instrumental in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But proper implementation of the plans is critical, Greenberger and Ellis said, and federal agencies need to coordinate and have the support of state and local partners.

"We’re all in this together, and our intent is to work collaboratively with our partners and collaboratively with stakeholders to implement this thing," Ellis said. "We really need to, to be successful in implementing this plan. It’s important we’re all working together."

But the exact language in the IMs is sure to raise some concerns among stakeholders groups, including the oil and gas and livestock industries.

Indeed, the IMs come as the Interior and Agriculture departments fend off lawsuits by Western states, counties, the oil and gas industry, miners, and ranchers that seek to undo the plans.

In addition, congressional Republicans are pushing legislation to give governors the authority to essentially veto the federal plans, while GOP leaders in both chambers have attached amendments to Interior appropriations bills that seek to undermine grouse protections.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) at a recent oversight hearing criticized the grouse plans but also ripped Interior for delays in finalizing the guidance documents outlining how the plans will be implemented (E&E Daily, June 29).

Ellis defended the plans and said the IMs took so long to finalize because BLM, Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service and other agencies spent months working with state and local leaders, as well as various stakeholders groups, to incorporate their concerns in the final documents.

"I think you’ll see in here a lot of discretion and decisions based locally," he said.

That approach has earned praise from a bipartisan group of state leaders.

Greater sage grouse
Greater sage grouse. | Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among them is John Swartout, a Republican who is a senior adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). Swartout is a member of a federal-state sage grouse task force that worked closely with Interior on the IMs and reviewed and provided input on them.

"I think from a process standpoint the fact that Secretary Jewell and staff brought these [IMs] to the task force and gave us a chance to take a look at them was great," Swartout said. "It doesn’t always happen where the federal agencies do the kind of outreach they say they’ll do. We found it extremely helpful, and I think they found it extremely helpful."

Jerimiah Rieman, chairman of the sage grouse task force and the natural resource policy director for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), echoed Swartout.

"Throughout this greater sage grouse process, BLM has been open to allowing constructive dialogue," Rieman said. "We may not agree on every point, and I’m sure there will be things in the IMs we do not agree with. But we have to be open to continual dialogue moving forward as we find things that are working and things that are not working. And we need to have the flexibility to adapt."

Drilling and grouse

One of the seven instruction memos finalized today deals specifically with oil and gas leasing and development activity in grouse habitat.

Two industry trade groups have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the federal grouse plans, saying they impose significant new restrictions on where, when and how companies can access minerals (Greenwire, May 12).

The federal plans prohibit surface disturbances from oil and gas drilling across an area roughly the size of Ohio.

But the oil and gas IM does not forbid BLM field offices from leasing parcels in formally designated priority habitat areas, nor does it mandate that leases must first be issued outside of designated habitat areas.

Rather, it encourages BLM field offices "to work collaboratively with relevant state and federal agencies as well as stakeholders to develop strategies and incentives to encourage and prioritize leasing and development outside of [grouse] habitats."

The IM stresses that "it is intended to ensure consideration of the lands" outside formally designated general and priority habitat areas for leasing and development "before considering any lands within [priority areas] for leasing and development in an effort to focus future surface disturbance outside of the most important areas for sage-grouse conservation consistent with the conservation objectives and provisions" in the federal grouse plans.

What’s more, if the agency determines that "the potential environmental impacts could be significant" by oil and gas leasing in any designated grouse habitat area, a full environmental impact statement, which can take years to complete and cost millions of dollars, must be conducted, the IM says.

That provision is likely to concern the industry.

But the IM also calls for opening for consideration more than 5 million acres of federal lands the oil and gas industry had nominated for leasing in seven Western states that had been deferred by BLM until the agency completed the implementation guidance documents.

The deferred industry nominated parcels "may now proceed" toward the lease stage as long as leasing the parcels is "consistent with the oil and gas leasing IM."

The oil and gas memo says that BLM "will first consider" leasing industry-nominated parcels outside priority and general grouse habitat. "These lands should be the first priority for leasing in any given lease sale," the IM says.

Grazing guidance

The exact language for how BLM will manage livestock grazing in grouse habitat is also likely to stir up controversy.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not consider livestock grazing one of the top threats facing the bird, though overgrazing can reduce the height of the grasses and broad-leafed plants that sage grouse need to eat and find cover from predators.

Two of the IMs finalized today deal with setting priorities for reviewing grazing permits and allotments in grouse habitat and establishing thresholds that would trigger a set of actions when "habitat objectives" are not met.

The first says that BLM field offices "will prioritize the review and processing of grazing permits" in grouse habitat, as well as monitoring compliance with the terms of the permit.

"The decision to prioritize in this way does not indicate that grazing is more of a management concern than other uses of the public lands, or that grazing is an incompatible use in any given area, but rather reflects a decision to prioritize limited resources to ensure grazing is properly managed in those areas most important to the Greater Sage-Grouse," the IM says.

The IM directs field offices to "develop an [grazing] allotment priority list," with a special focus on so-called sagebrush focal areas that are considered critical to the survival of the grouse.

In addition, grazing allotments in areas with "large, contiguous areas of sagebrush cover" will be a higher priority for BLM review, as well as areas "with declining sage-grouse populations," the IM says.

It’s not clear how the livestock and ranching communities will receive BLM’s instruction memos.

A draft copy of a guidance document pertaining to livestock grazing obtained by Greenwire last spring caused a great deal of concern among the ranching community (Greenwire, April 20).

The draft document said if livestock are found to be a "causal factor" in an allotment area that is not meeting habitat objectives, BLM might consider setting a threshold allowing the animals to consume no more than 35 percent of the forage base to ensure enough plants are left behind for grouse to eat and take shelter. The agency would also consider delaying the grazing season by a few weeks.

The final IM does not contain that language. But it does call for setting thresholds "at the site specific or allotment level" for the health of grouse habitat within grazing allotments, and it would set specific actions when those thresholds are exceeded.

These thresholds "and defined responses" would be included in "the terms and conditions of the grazing permit or lease," but only those located within sagebrush focal areas or priority habitat, the IM says.

Measuring success

The seven IMs issued today also include instructions on how to uniformly gauge the success of the sage grouse protection measures.

Two of the IMs set up an "effectiveness monitoring" system outlining the types of information to be collected to track whether conservation measures are working at specific habitat sites.

The greater sage grouse plans finalized last year established seasonal habitat objectives. BLM state and field offices will periodically prepare reports outlining "the effectiveness of the field office decisions" related to the grouse plans in meeting those habitat objectives.

If determined that a specific area is not meeting habitat objectives, "or if the area is not making progress toward meeting the objectives, the field office will conduct a causal factor analysis and whether or not the cause is the result of BLM decisions."

The agency would file a report that "should discuss if and how the BLM can work to reduce or eliminate any of the causal factors" contributing to the area not meeting the objectives, the IM says.

Consistent evaluation of the plans and the flexibility to adapt as conditions change are things BLM heard from stakeholders in the months spent developing the IMs, Ellis said.

"Some of the things that we heard was they want a clear and consistent approach in implementing these plans, with the ultimate goal of conserving sage grouse habitat," Ellis said.

Click here to read the seven IMs.

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