Sage grouse guidance addresses BLM grazing policy
The Wyoming BLM issued an instruction memorandum (IM) on Feb. 10 to address the management policy of greater sage grouse habitat on BLM-administered public lands.
Instruction Memorandum No. WY-2012-019 is a guidance document provided to manage interim policies until resource management planning updates are complete.
“There is quite a bit of direction for sage grouse in the IM, because there wasn’t a whole lot of consistent direction on how to management BLM programs with sage grouse in mind,” explains Steve Ferrell, who serves as Wildlife and Endangered Species Policy Advisor for Governor Matt Mead.
“The IM is intended to provide guidance for business as usual, with a spotlight on what the consequences are for sage grouse habitat.”
After a nationwide IM was issued by BLM in late December, Ferrell says the state of Wyoming asked for an exemption.
“We already have an executive order signed by the Governor that has been accepted by the FWS as an adequate regulatory mechanism,” says Ferrell. “The BLM was receptive to that.”
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and we don’t need a set of guidelines that are more restrictive than the executive order,” explains Ferrell, adding that the BLM was receptive to allowing Wyoming to follow the executive order.
“Later in the process, we learned that the executive order was able to do everything but the grazing program, which caused us some concern,” adds Ferrell. “We spent the better part of a month trying to resolve the grazing portion.”
The result was an IM issued by BLM that is very close to the executive order to address grazing issues, says Ferrell, noting that, while the IM doesn’t read exactly like the executive order, it is very close.
“We will be very careful to monitor how the decisions made by BLM play out, in hopes that they are consistent with the executive order,” says Ferrell.
Frank Eathorne, a rancher from north of Douglas, says, “There are some implications that could be pretty detrimental to grazing on the BLM.”
“Around 75 percent of the area in the national grasslands is potential habitat,” notes Eathorne. “It may or may not be good habitat, but there is something there.”
He adds that, while the BLM document doesn’t directly affect the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, the Forest Service is proposing a plan amendment similar to the IM.
Eathorne continues, explaining that the existence of good habitat does not indicate sage grouse are present, providing an example on his own land.
“The sagebrush and understory are still present on our private land, and we have all the things that they need, but we hardly ever see sage grouse,” says Eathorne. “There are other things going on out there besides the destruction of habitat, but they aren’t nearly as easy to control.”
According to Eathorne, the answer to some of the problems with sage grouse would be found in Endangered Species Act reform, but he notes that Congress seems unwilling to do that. He fears the sage grouse has the potential to impact agriculture the same way the spotted owl impacted logging – it could end the industry.
“Grazing is being painted as one of the problems, so I think we will suffer,” says Eathorne, “and I don’t think it will help sage grouse.”
“There are some things that landowners could do,” admits Eathorne, “but I think grazing will take more than its share of the hit. We are a big target, and an easy target.”
Sage grouse task force
Sage grouse conservation efforts are also being addressed throughout the 11-state region that sits within greater sage grouse habitat.
As a result of a Dec. 9 meeting in Cheyenne hosted by Governor Matt Mead with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, a task force was formed to create a process by which a regional conservation plan could be written. At the meeting, each of the 11 states and primary federal agencies were represented.
“The process will be described within 90 days of the first meeting of the task force,” says Ferrell, adding that, while the task force has not had their first meeting yet, he hopes to have the description of the process by spring.
The task force, co-chaired by Mead, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and BLM Director Bob Abbey, hopes to create a conservation plan that will keep the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, and it has enlisted the help of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to achieve its goals.
“With the help and concurrence of the FWS, the task force will define what success looks like,” explains Ferrell. “Instead of us just guessing what a regional conservation plan should look like and hope we guess correctly, we will get the FWS to support a description of what it will take to keep the bird off of the endangered species list by 2015.”
“If we do all of these things, the FWS will say that we shall be assured to not have the bird listed,” he adds.
Ferrell further explains that the conservation plan will look at where the 11 states are currently, compared to where they need to be to successfully keep sage grouse off the endangered species list, as well as what needs to be done to fill the gap between the two.
“The IM will be part of filling the gap and providing adequate regulatory mechanisms for conserving sage grouse,” says Ferrell of Wyoming’s document. “The intention is to give direction to the BLM Wyoming Area Office in what needs to be done while they are rewriting resource management plans (RMPs).”
“As RMPs come on line, they will be the guiding documents,” adds Ferrell.
Ferrell says he anticipates the task force will stay intact to guide the implementation of a process to create a regional conservation plan for sage grouse.
Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.