Continuing conservation approach – Land management plans released for sage grouse states
Cheyenne – After nearly a decade of working to protect sage grouse and the sagebrush steppe habitat and planning to provide protection into the future, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze joined Governor Matt Mead in Cheyenne on May 28 to announce the release of the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for land management plans covering 10 states.
The 14 EIS documents encompassing 98 land management plans address Greater sage grouse habitat across Wyoming and other western states, including elements intended to jointly benefit wildlife, recreation and agriculture.
“This is a great milestone,” said Jewell during an event held at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. “This has been an unprecedented collaborative effort across the West.”
“This is not just about sage grouse,” Mead said. “It’s about the West. It’s about ag, tourism and the economy. It’s about finding a balance.”
“We have put a mark in history in terms of how these economies work, and we will have made a mark on conservation when we sign the Record of Decision in a few months,” Kornze added.
A look back
Since the petition to list the Greater sage grouse and other related sage grouse species on the Endangered Species List over a decade ago, Jewell said that much work has been done across the West.
Jewell continued, “In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service said, ‘We’ve evaluated these ecosystems for Greater sage grouse, and they are in trouble. If we don’t do something collectively, the bird has the potential of going extinct.’”
At that point, state wildlife directors and others banded together to work with Department of the Interior because nearly two-thirds of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem is on federal lands.
“My predecessor Ken Salazar asked Governor Mead and Governor Hickenlooper to form a sage grouse task force to develop a federal and state strategy,” Jewell continued. “Across the range, people have stepped forward.”
“Wyoming is the heart of sage grouse country,” Jewell commented, “and it is also the heart of the sage grouse conservation effort. But beyond that, it is the heart of a conservation effort that I think will redefine how we look at and oversee our landscapes collectively for generations to come.”
She also emphasized that Wyoming has played an integral role in the development of these land management plans and in conservation of sage grouse.
“From the get-go, this state has understood that a healthy sagebrush ecosystem and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand,” she said. “Wyoming has great leadership from Governor Mead and his predecessor Governor Freudenthal, as well as those who have worked long hours on the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT). They have shown leadership that the rest of the country is looking up to.”
In 2007, Wyoming formed the SGIT to combat the challenges posed by sage grouse in a proactive manner.
“The members of the team don’t look alike, and they have very different views, but over the years, they have sat down at the table to ask how we protect sage grouse,” Mead explained. “I think they have done an extraordinary job.”
The collaborative federal-state effort includes three key elements to conserve the sagebrush landscape, which faces threats from fire, invasive species and encroaching development – a comprehensive strategy to fight rangeland fire, strong conservation plans for federal public lands and conservation actions on state and private lands.
“The West is rapidly changing – with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” said Jewell. “As land managers of two-thirds of Greater sage grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy. Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West.”
Bonnie mentioned that in the plans, Forest Service amendments focused on management, and only 16 percent of permitted acres will be impacted.
He further noted, “We are going to work with ranchers to phase these amendments in over time, and where we overlap with BLM, we are going to work together. No plans will be placed off-limits to grazing.”
From conservation and maintenance to restoration of millions of acres and tens of thousands of acres of permanent conservation easements, Bonnie noted that USDA will continue to invest in the efforts to conserve sage grouse habitats across the West.
“We are very proud of the work we have done with our partners,” Bonnie continued. “USDA is all-in on this effort, and we look forward to continuing to work with all the partners.”
Jewell also mentioned that the plans focus on protecting sage grouse while also ensuring that local economies are able to thrive.
“What is good for the bird is good for the herd,” she said. “There are a number of members from industries who are represented in the SGIT and throughout the West who have worked together collaboratively.”
Mead mentioned that the sage grouse conservation effort isn’t just about sage grouse, but rather, the effort encompasses the habitat and heritage of the West.
“We think about how important energy and mineral development, ag and tourism are,” he said. “We recognize that what is at stake is our economy. We want to continue to have a strong economy, and to do that, we have to find the sweet spot in terms of balance.”
He added that there is no choice to make between sage grouse conservation and the economy – balance must be achieved.
“As we announce these plans, I’m so proud of all of our teammates,” Jewell continued. “They have taken a balanced and targeted approach focusing on protection of the places that matter most.”
Governor Mead noted, “It is appropriate to celebrate. We celebrate our partnerships with the federal government and western states. We have come a long way since 2007, but there is still work to be done.”
He continued that, while their extensive efforts have been successful, the plans must still go through a 30-day protest period, followed by 60 days of concurrence to make sure the federal plans match up with state and local efforts.
“We want to make sure this is done right,” he said.
“We haven’t reached the finish line yet,” Mead added. “We’ve had some successes to this point, but we have a long way to go. One thing I’m confident about is that we have the right team to do it.”
“If this is a 100-mile path, we are looking at mile 99, but that last mile is uphill,” Mead commented. “There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of details to work out.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.