Sage grouse conservation changes are in progress | TSLN.com

Sage grouse conservation changes are in progress

President Donald Trump's administration recently reopened the saga of the sage grouse, in favor of research, and the ranching and energy industries, to the chagrin of those hoping the plan of the past administration would remain intact.

The ranching and energy industries both praised the new plan but the proposed changes, according to activists, put the greater sage grouse at risk of extinction once again. Groups such as The Wilderness Society and National Wildlife Federation, have pressured representatives for years, claiming that grazing is among the evils that has caused the decline in the birds' population.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zine released a document outlining the proposed recommended changes, following a report from the Department of the Interior Sage-Grouse Review Team (DOI Team).

"I'm thankful to all of the DOI team members as well as the bureau staff and the state partners who put in the hard work and time to develop this report," said Secretary Zinke in a statement. "I've directed Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to begin implementation of the recommendations and to direct the Bureau of Land Management, in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other offices in the Department, to immediately follow through on the short- and long-term recommendations."

In addition to officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Forest Service, representatives from 11 states that have sage-grouse habitat were involved in outlining the report, but not all are in complete agreement of the outcome.

But according to the DOI team, it aims to improve sage-grouse conservation and to strengthen communication and collaboration between states and the federal government. Together, the federal government and the states are working to conserve and protect sage-grouse and their habitat while also ensuring conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities.

Recommended Stories For You

In signing the order, Secretary Zinke established an internal review team that, among other things, evaluated both federal sage-grouse plans and state plans and programs to ensure they are complementary and explored possible plan modifications with local economic growth and job creation in mind.

The report is a step in the right direction, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

"In looking at the report, I believe it looks at all the right issues. We are cautiously optimistic," Magagna said.

According to Magagna, one particular area of interest was the height requirement on rangeland grasses and shrubs, which the report takes into consideration.

The potential changes to the Sage Grouse plan are being dubbed by activists groups as a ploy for development in the oil and gas industry, and ignores previous scientific studies showing that drilling too close to sage grouse breeding areas would harm the birds.

"Wholesale changes to the plans are not necessary and could derail years of hard work," National Wildlife Federation President Collin O'Mara said in a statement. "We cannot fall victim to the false dichotomy that pits wildlife conservation against the administration's energy development goals."

"The flexibility that was built into these plans has created loopholes that this administration intends to exploit for its energy, mineral, and development agenda on our public lands," said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. "The review pinpointed parts of the plan that can immediately be ignored or overturned through backroom deals and new policies, agreements, and staff training. It's a cynical exercise in how to skirt sage-grouse protections."

States affected by the conservation plan are California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Wyoming holds the largest population, with close to 40 percent of the birds, according to Magagna.

The original plan, unveiled in 2015 under the previous administration, was billed as a solution to keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list, following what advocates said was decades of declining population, because of grazing, the oil and gas boom, and wildfires.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead had a little more conservative approach to the proposed changes.

"Secretary Zinke and the Department of the Interior made an earnest effort to collaborate with the states during the sage-grouse management review," said Governor Mead. "The states have primacy over sage-grouse management and Wyoming's plan is solid and should be allowed to work. The Wyoming approach balances energy, agriculture, conservation and recreation. The federal plans do not fully implement the Wyoming approach. While DOI identifies numerous ways to improve federal plans, I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding. Industry needs predictability, but the report does not explain fully how population targets provide that certainty. Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species."

The report does mention artificial means of boosting the sage-grouse population including captive breeding; although not yet proven effective, there is a general agreement that if may be used as a wildlife management tool, "best suited to augmenting small at-risk populations for short periods of time while factors contributing to population declines are simultaneously addressed."

Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meets Wednesday, Aug. 23, in Casper to discuss the new state law for commercial sage-grouse farms and vote on new regulations to facilitate it. The meeting will be live-streamed with deputy director Scott Smith presenting and public comment to follow.

The next six months will the test, according to Magagna.

"This was the step that identified the issues. We will be very engaged in identifying solutions," Magagna said.

Idaho, Utah and Nevada had filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama-era Sage Grouse conservation plans. Idaho Governor, Butch Otter, was relieved to see the beginning of what could be more state management and less federal control.

"My staff and I stand ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the Department of the Interior to bring the federal plans into alignment with Idaho's science-based conservation plan," Otter said in a statement.

The report is the final product required by Secretarial Order 3353 "Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States" issued June 7, 2017. The report as well as the cover letter from the BLM to the Secretary, and the memo from Secretary Zinke to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is available at https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/uploads/so3353_memo_coverletter_report_080717.pdf.

DOI Recommendations:

• Identify options to incorporate updated habitat boundaries into habitat management areas;

• Clarify mechanisms to modify waivers, exceptions, and modifications in priority habitat management areas (PHMAs);

• Modify or issue new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development, including the prioritization policy;

• Issue or modify policy and provide training on use of assessment and monitoring data and tools, the habitat objectives table from the 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse (GRSG) Plans and to increase flexibility in grazing management;

• Identify options to streamline use authorizations with little impact on GRSG;

• Clarify the appropriate use of compensatory mitigation and identify opportunities to increase consistency between the Federal and State plans;

• Work with states to improve techniques and methods to allow the States to set appropriate population objectives; and

• Investigate the removal or modification of Sage-grouse Focal Areas in certain States.

Go back to article