Strictly limiting transmission lines, wind and solar energy plants, and even airports in core sage grouse habitat.
New grouse-management zones.
New measures for ranchers in grouse country.
A new focus for fighting fires in grouse habitat.
Those are among the recommendations from a task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter to develop a plan Idaho can present to the federal government to conserve sage grouse while keeping the bird off the endangered species list.
The task force came back with recommendations to split Idahos sage grouse habitat into three zones with different levels of restrictions.
The plan would require ranchers to ensure their operations protect prime nesting habitat and other parts of the sagebrush steppe landscape that is crucial to the birds survival. If ranchers dont meet the objectives, the plan calls for them to undertake conservation measures to improve the habitat.
The plan also would shift local, state and federal firefighting resources to key habitat areas to stop what is considered the major threat to sage grouse habitat: wildfire. It would use targeted grazing and other measures to combat invasive species like cheatgrass.
The task force members have done a great job putting together options for protecting sage grouse without the draconian restrictions that would be required by an endangered species listing, Otter said.
A sage grouse listing under the Endangered Species Act could disrupt development, energy exploration and ranching from New Mexico to Washington state.
The state plan would be added to the National Greater Sage Grouse Land Use Planning Strategy being developed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. If approved, the state plan would be part of amendments to existing land-use plans.
Otter will begin a public comment period next week and hopes to finish the plan by the end of July.
The main tool the task force recommends is designating a Sage Grouse Management Area with three zones. In core habitat, big infrastructure projects such as transmission lines, wind generation plants and airports would be prohibited, with few exceptions.
Important habitat is slightly less restrictive and general habitat offers much more flexibility.
In the top two zones, only protecting human safety and structures would take precedent over protecting grouse habitat in fire protection. The proposal calls for assessing grazing decisions to ensure that the birds are protected immediately in their best habitat.
OTTERS FINAL CALL
The group made about 80 percent of the necessary decisions but left 20 percent for Otter, said Tom Perry, Otters chief counsel who is leading the effort along with Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore.
One critical decision Otter must make: whether to establish triggers for imposing additional restrictions or conservation measures in the event that fire destroys grouse habitat or some disease such as West Nile virus kills a significant part of the population.
We need the ability to manage our bank accounts, Perry said, likening habitat and birds to money. If your accounts dont balance out, you have to have that on-and-off switch.
Most of the restrictions would be enforced not by the state but by the BLM and Forest Service. But the state will need to ensure that what happens on state and private lands in core habitat doesnt set back efforts on federal land.
UP TO THE JUDGE
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Boise and Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey environmental group, have forced the federal government to protect sage grouse and the millions of acres of sagebrush habitat where they live.
In 2007, Winmill ordered the agency to review its 2004 decision not to list the bird as a threatened species, saying the Bush administration manipulated the science.
Winmill, inevitably, will have to decide whether the state and federal governments are doing enough to protect the grouse.
Western Watersheds Ken Cole has attended a few of the meetings and is skeptical the state plan will meet the scientific and legal test.
If the BLM doesnt honestly address the impacts of grazing on sage grouse, Im sure were going to go back to court and Im sure well win, he said.
His attorney, Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, echoed that statement. But Lucas applauded Otter and the state.
A decade ago, nobody was talking about sage grouse and sagebrush, he said. Im actually very encouraged that the state of Idaho has convened this task force and is taking sage grouse seriously.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484