Sage grouse scapegoats once again | TSLN.com

Sage grouse scapegoats once again

Tamara Choat
for Tri-State Livestock News

The Interior Department recentl released a proposal to halt mining on about 10 million acres of BLM land, under the guise of protecting the sage grouse. The Public Lands Council believes it is an effort to bury the new administration in paperwork. iStock photo

Those poor sage grouse.

They really just want to continue their fancy dances and fly up to spook hapless horses and horn-grabbing kids like they've always done. They never meant to be the poster birds for radical environmental groups working to block multiple use management of federal lands.

But sitting ducks they are – specifically under the broken Endangered Species Act citing their proposed demise. A Department of Interior administration on the sunset of its term is calling for withdrawal from future mining of approximately 10 million acres of BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands deemed as sage-grouse strongholds in the states of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

The BLM has just released for public comment a draft environmental impact statement analyzing five alternatives for the designated acres, based on a first round of comments over the past year. The alternatives range from "no action" to their "proposed action" – which would bar any future hardrock mining. A fact sheet detailing the suggested withdrawal asserts the "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified habitat disturbance and fragmentation caused by certain hardrock mining operations as a threat to greater sage grouse habitat. As a result, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land use plans recommend that the Secretary of the Interior exercise her authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to safeguard the most important landscapes …"

“The BLM was chartered to focus on managing for multiple use and over the last eight years we have moved away from that. Instead, this administration has been focusing on intangible things like climate change and unfounded ‘conservation’ without responsible management

— things the agencies were not chartered to do.” Ethan Lane, Public Lands Council director

Recommended Stories For You

The 90-day public comment period will end March 30, 2017 – well after the new Trump administration takes the reins with – barring any hiccups – Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke sworn in as the new Secretary of the Interior, replacing Obama's Secretary Sally Jewel.

It may be a last ditch effort, but the paperwork will go on.

"It's no secret that this Department of Interior has dumped another truckload of regulatory paperwork," says Ethan Lane, director of the Public Lands Council. "It's part of this administration's drive to overload the new administration and all resource groups in the West with as much of a paperwork burden as possible. This piece is definitely part of that."

Although the proposal bans mining, not livestock or grazing, many feel the basis is the same – to limit use of the land through federal control.

"The BLM was chartered to focus on managing for multiple use and over the last eight years we have moved away from that," says Lane. "Instead, this administration has been focusing on intangible things like climate change and unfounded 'conservation' without responsible management – things the agencies were not chartered to do."

Lane says the PLC will thoroughly evaluate the proposal and submit comments just as they always have. "But we will also continue to insist that these plans are not based on sound science. We have ongoing data from the USDA and the NRCS and some universities in the West showing the science they used to determine these disturbances were not calculated properly."

Jay Bodner, natural resource director for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, says the general intent of the withdrawal proposal goes against the grain of what ranchers and state level management have worked for years to accomplish – state level management with a closer viewpoint to the situation.

"From a Montana perspective, our state now has a sage grouse program in place and we can specifically deal with these types of designations that we think are appropriate to protect sage grouse," says Bodner. "Instead, this proposal gives top-down direction from BLM telling states where they should withdraw these acres."

Bodner also mentioned the proposal could have a significant negative impact on counties that depend on mining for local tax revenue.

The exact amount of red tape, such as this proposal, the new administration will have to cut through in the wake of the exit is not quite clear. But there is hope Zinke will bring some big scissors.

"Within the first 100 days in office, the associations are calling on the administration to bring an immediate halt to the Sage Grouse Resource Management Plans, repeal the sprawling monument designations made through abuse of the Antiquities Act, address the critical habitat designations imposing stifling restrictions on landowners, and immediately withdraw EPA's "waters of the United States" rule and the Bureau of Land Management's planning 2.0 rule," the Public Lands Council said in a recent joint press release with other livestock interest groups.

Zinke's appointment came as a surprise to some. A retired Navy SEAL Commander, he is not as conservative as other candidates considered for the position. Most notably he is a forthright opponent of the transfer of federal lands back to state control. In June 2016 he bucked party lines and voted against a Republican-supported bill to sell up to two million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands back to the states. In July he withdrew as a delegate to the Republican National Convention citing the divergence of opinion with the GOP on the issue of federal land ownership.

The fact that he is opposed by groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the most vocal advocates for adding listings to the Endangered Species Act, speaks for the potential for relief for the agriculture industry. Environmental groups generally view him disfavorably for his support of mineral development and logging on federal lands.

"We are excited for Representative Zinke to refocus the agency's efforts on their core mission, and to have someone that understands the challenges we face in the West," says Lane.

Noting that Zinke has not yet stepped into the new role as Secretary, his office did not respond to questions on the issue.