Friday, September 02, 2016

BLM issues long-awaited sage grouse implementation plans

Scott Streater

The Obama administration today finalized guidance documents outlining exactly how federal land managers will implement provisions in sweeping greater sage grouse conservation plans covering 67 million acres in 10 Western states.

The seven instruction memorandums (IMs) issued today by the Bureau of Land Management come nearly a year after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in September 2015 finalized the federal plans, which amended 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans to include grouse protection measures.

The IMs will guide BLM as it implements the sage grouse conservation measures that will affect how livestock grazing, oil and natural gas drilling, mining, renewable energy development, and other activities are carried out on federal lands across the West.

The IMs also include procedures to help BLM field offices track man-made disturbance activities in grouse habitat and collect data that will allow land managers to assess habitat conditions "at the local, regional and rangewide scales," the agency says.

One goal of the memos is to "show that there are some concrete actions" that, if applied consistently across the grouse's enormous range, will "provide certainty that conservation will take place," Sarah Greenberger, a key adviser to Jewell on sage grouse, said in an interview.

Greenberger and BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis outlined details of the IMs yesterday to Greenwire.

The federal plans were instrumental in the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to list the greater sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But proper implementation of the plans is critical, Greenberger and Ellis said, and federal agencies need to coordinate and have the support of state and local partners.

...The exact language for how BLM will manage livestock grazing in grouse habitat is also likely to stir up controversy.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not consider livestock grazing one of the top threats facing the bird, though overgrazing can reduce the height of the grasses and broad-leafed plants that sage grouse need to eat and find cover from predators.

Two of the IMs finalized today deal with setting priorities for reviewing grazing permits and allotments in grouse habitat and establishing thresholds that would trigger a set of actions when "habitat objectives" are not met.

The first says that BLM field offices "will prioritize the review and processing of grazing permits" in grouse habitat, as well as monitoring compliance with the terms of the permit.

"The decision to prioritize in this way does not indicate that grazing is more of a management concern than other uses of the public lands, or that grazing is an incompatible use in any given area, but rather reflects a decision to prioritize limited resources to ensure grazing is properly managed in those areas most important to the Greater Sage-Grouse," the IM says.

The IM directs field offices to "develop an [grazing] allotment priority list," with a special focus on so-called sagebrush focal areas that are considered critical to the survival of the grouse.

In addition, grazing allotments in areas with "large, contiguous areas of sagebrush cover" will be a higher priority for BLM review, as well as areas "with declining sage-grouse populations," the IM says.

It's not clear how the livestock and ranching communities will receive BLM's instruction memos...

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