Right before the close of 2017, on Dec. 29, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued updated policy statements designed to maintain healthy sagebrush habitat in the West while also continuing to allow multiple use and influencing local economic development.
The six Instruction Memoranda (IM) provide guidance to BLM staff and managers for implementing sage grouse habitat management plans at the local level.
“The updated policies are in response to concerns raised by the states, local partners and our own field staff,” said Brian Steed, BLM’s deputy director for programs and policy. “They were developed from the ground up with the goal of improving sagebrush habitat while permitting measured economic and recreational activity.”
The six documents provide guidance for oil and gas leasing and development, livestock grazing leasing and permitting, and evaluating the health of sagebrush habitat. Three of the IMs revise memos issued in 2016, two super
sede guidance from 2016, and the final document is a new IM that directs field staff in using the habitat objective stable in sage grouse management plans.
The IMs, which were developed with input and consultation from the Governor’s offices in 11 western states and built on reviews of Greater sage grouse plans and policies, as director by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
The IMs also reinforce the importance of land health standards, which are established in regulation for evaluating all BLM-managed public lands, those with habitat and those without.
BLM says, “While policy on land health evaluation has not changed, clarification in the policy for prioritizing grazing permit renewal responds to concerns of several states that earlier guidance could be interpreted as making the presence of sage grouse habitat the primary or sole factor to consider in permit and leasing evaluations.”
Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and co-chair of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, said, “These IMs are mainly to clarify things that were unclear in the previous plans.”
He continued, “For the ag industry, there were real concerns about the misinterpretation and misapplication of the habitat tables. We think this is a move in the right direction to applying them correctly.”
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, added specifically, “The thing that bothered us most was Table 2.2 on stubble height. In the IMs, they make it very clear stubble height is not the basis of grazing decisions. Instead, it is to inform the process, but decisions are to be made based on standards for healthy rangelands, as in the past.”
Rather, the IMs emphasize that grazing plan decisions can be informed by the habitat assessment frame work for sage grouse, but “it doesn’t directly drive decisions,” Magagna explained.
“Overall, the IMs are very good for Wyoming,” Magagna said.
While the IMs have made significant progress, according to Budd and Magagna, both note that land use plan amendments are necessary for the future. Those changes are still being pursued in a parallel track.
Magagna explained BLM hired a private contractor to analyze comments, with direction to report back by Dec. 31. The next step is development of proposed amendments and public input, a process which could take six months to a year or more to complete.
“In the meantime, these IMs should help to clarify the fact that objectives for sage grouse are not what grazing permits should be solely renewed by,” he said.
Magagna commented, “I’m very pleased with the IMs. They go about as far as BLM could go and defend their actions, short of plan amendments.”
The interim actions, continued Magagna, take some of the burden off producers for the BLM planning process.
Additionally, Budd said, “In Wyoming, with our sage grouse plans and what we have been doing, we shouldn’t see too much of an impact.”
IMs are generally issued for three years, which allows BLM to review their effectiveness, and if needed, make changes. The IMs issued in December will be BLM policy through September 2021.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article, which was written from press releases and Roundup interviews, to firstname.lastname@example.org.