Interior unveils final federal grouse protection plans

By Scott Streater | 05/28/2015 01:22 PM EDT

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Obama administration announced today it has taken a major step toward finalizing a sweeping plan designed to protect greater sage grouse habitat across millions of acres of federal lands in 10 Western states.

The Interior Department today released 14 final environmental impact statements (EISs) that all but clear the way for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to amend nearly 100 land-use management plans to incorporate sage grouse protection measures aimed at preserving the highest quality grouse habitat.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the announcement at a press conference in a muddy field here at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the remote site of a bird habitat conservation area with grouse habitat.

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Jewell said the final EISs covering BLM and Forest Service lands in 10 states — California, Colorado, the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming — significantly advance ongoing efforts to protect the bird and its habitat only four months before the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to decide whether the ground-dwelling bird warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The federal plans are critical, as more than half of the remaining sage grouse habitat is on federal lands, including an estimated 47 million acres of grouse habitat under BLM control.

"Environmental impact statements are a fancy way of saying we are actually releasing a rangewide strategy that covers 10 of the 11 states that have a lot of the [grouse] habitat within the federal family," Jewell said, standing in the shadow of a grain silo in front of about 50 state officials, local government leaders and ranchers. "This is an amazing milestone."

Speaking specifically to the state and local leaders and ranchers, Jewell thanked them for working with federal regulators to craft a plan to save the greater sage grouse.

"We can’t afford to lose this [sagebrush] landscape any more than we afford to lose the Florida Everglades," Jewell said. "Thank you for your bold vision, your epic collaboration and for providing certainty to land managers and wildlife biologists that we can have all."

The release of the final EISs and the proposed amendments to BLM resource management plans (RMPs) and Forest Service land-use plans kicks off a 30-day public protest period, as well as a 60-day governor’s consistency review. The goal is to implement the plan amendments through a record of decision by late summer, officials said.

The proposed RMP and land-use plan amendments are the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s "National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy." But the plans marked as preferred alternatives in the final EISs are sure to spark strong reactions from state leaders, conservation groups, ranchers and farmers, and the oil and gas industry.

Federal, state and local government leaders are desperately working to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list, fearing an ESA listing would damage the region’s economy, including its vital ranching, agricultural and energy sectors.

BLM and the Forest Service developed the federal grouse plans over three years. BLM in 2013 issued 15 draft EISs that analyzed the 98 RMP and land-use plan amendments. Until today, BLM had released only the final EIS for its Lander Field Office, which covers 2.4 million acres in central Wyoming.

Many states within the bird’s 11-state Western range have already approved their own sage grouse plans, including Montana, Utah and Colorado, where Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) earlier this month issued an executive order strengthening existing grouse protections (E&ENews PM, May 15).

BLM, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have been meeting regularly with state officials to ensure that state and federal plans are consistent and that the conservation goals are properly aligned, establishing a strong coordinated strategy to protect the bird, officials said.

A collaborative grouse conservation effort involving federal and state regulators and private landowners has been proved to work, most recently last month when the Interior Department withdrew a proposed "threatened" ESA listing for a separate, distinct sage grouse population found along the California-Nevada border (Greenwire, April 21).

But today’s announcement comes amid some uncertainty about the overall health of the iconic greater sage grouse.

A study led by University of Idaho wildlife ecologist Edward Oz Garton found grouse numbers fell by more than half from 2007 to 2013 across the West (E&E Daily, April 24).

Jewell said the plan takes all of that into account.

"Some will say the plans don’t go far enough," she said. "To those I would say these plans are ground in sound science, the best available science. We’re confident these plans address the main threats to the bird identified by federal and state land management officers."

Plan details

The proposed federal grouse management plan outlined in the 14 final EISs contains slightly different requirements and approaches for each state.

But all of the proposed federal plans have the same three objectives: Minimize surface disturbance activity to avoid fragmentation of grouse habitat; improve existing grouse habitat conditions; and reduce the threat of wildfires in grouse habitat — one of the biggest threats to the bird, particularly in the Great Basin region of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California, according to BLM.

BLM has partnered with Western ranchers and local firefighters to prioritize wildfire response in high-value habitats that are most susceptible to disturbance. Once sagebrush burns, the lands are tough to defend from invasive species like cheatgrass and medusahead rye, which make the lands even more susceptible to wildfires (Greenwire, May 26).

Interior officials say the plans adhere to the best available science, including an influential 2011 grouse management report by BLM’s National Technical Team (NTT) of sage grouse experts, and an FWS-commissioned report in 2013 by a conservation objectives team that outlined rangewide sage grouse protection goals.

Each proposed plan calls for establishing a multi-tiered landscape-level management approach concentrating the highest level of protections in areas the agency labels "sagebrush focal areas." Fish and Wildlife has identified these areas covering about 16.5 million acres as containing "high breeding population densities of sage grouse," as well as "existing high quality sagebrush habitat," according to a BLM fact sheet.

A second tier called "priority habitat management areas" includes lands that would be managed to "avoid or minimize" new surface disturbances, the fact sheet says; a third tier, "general habitat management areas," would be the most flexible as far as land uses.

The plans recognize existing grazing allotments, as well as valid, existing oil and gas leases and renewable energy right-of-way grants, the agency says. But new drilling leases would require directional drilling in prime grouse habitat. And the plans call for directing large wind and solar power projects "to areas outside of priority sage-grouse habitat," the fact sheet says.

BLM says this should not cause great conflicts, noting that 84 percent of federal lands with the highest oil and gas resource potential are located outside key grouse habitat, according to the fact sheet.

Conversely, 94 percent of wind potential is on lands outside key grouse habitat, the agency says.

Ken Rait, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands program, said the "scope and scale" of BLM’s effort to develop the national sage grouse policy is impressive.

"This is an absolutely massive planning effort that is unprecedented in the history of the agency," said Rait, who attended Jewell’s press conference today in Cheyenne.

Rait said he needs to read the thousands of pages outlining the BLM grouse strategies in the EISs before he passes final judgment.

But the group is confident "the final plans are a significant improvement over the draft plans, which were widely panned as being inconsistent and not in accordance with the best available science," he said. "There was really only one way for them to go after the drafts, and that was to get better. And we believe that’s the direction they’ve gone."

Partnering with states

The release of the final EISs comes a day after a task force appointed by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) sent recommended changes to the governor that would revise and strengthen the state’s groundbreaking core sage grouse area strategy, first adopted via a governor’s executive order in 2008.

Wyoming is home to nearly half the remaining sage grouse population.

The BLM and Forest Service grouse plans build on the core area approach devised by Wyoming, which has identified roughly 15 million acres as core sage grouse areas where development is discouraged. The idea is that if these grouse strongholds are preserved relatively intact, the species will survive.

The changes recommended by the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, among other things, call for the governor to approve a temporary development ban on a massive proposed natural gas project on the state’s southwest side that would cut through some heavily used grouse wintering habitat. The team, according to press reports, wants more time to study existing research on winter habitat and its importance to the survival of the grouse.

Jewell, Mead and BLM Director Neil Kornze met privately today with the governor’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team prior to the announcement of the final EISs.

"I think they’ve done an extraordinary job," Mead said during today’s press conference. "This is not just about the sage grouse, it’s about the habitat; it’s about the West. We want to have oil and gas development, tourism and [agriculture]. On the other side, we recognize that in order to do that, we need to find this balance. We had to figure a path forward. There is not a choice to say we’re going to ignore the bird."

The work of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team underscores the value of state grouse protection measures. Many of the proposals in BLM’s final EISs follow not only Wyoming’s lead, but Idaho’s three-tiered conservation approach (see related story), and Oregon’s "all lands, all threats" approach.

"We are working with local partners to design innovative, long-term conservation plans," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who did not attend today’s press conference, said in a statement. "Together, we can put effective conservation measures in place that not only benefit the greater sage grouse, but also preserve the western way of life, help improve grazing lands and bolster rural economies."

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