Plan for Idaho's sage grouse moves forward

Federal agencies like the state's blueprint for protecting the bird on 11 million acres of public sagebrush habitat

rbarker@idahostatesman.comNovember 1, 2013 

  • AGENCIES MUST DECIDE BIRD'S FATE BY 2015

    The Bureau of Land Management, which controls 50 percent of the grouse's sagebrush-steppe habitat across the West, is working on a court-ordered plan due in two years to protect the bird so it won't have to be listed as endangered. A sage grouse listing could restrict development, energy exploration and ranching from New Mexico to Washington state.

    Sage grouse numbers declined sharply in the early 1900s and again after World War II. About 140,000 to 500,000 of the birds survive today, federal scientists estimate.

    The 2-foot-tall birds depend on sagebrush, a defining feature of the West. Its clean, bittersweet scent is instantly recognizable.

    About 50 percent of the West's original sagebrush habitat was replaced by farms and communities, intentionally removed on federal lands, or replaced by alien cheat grass through frequent fires.

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service acknowledged Gov. Butch Otter's collaborative efforts to develop a plan to protect the sage grouse by making the Idaho proposal one of two "co-preferred" alternatives in a draft analysis released Friday.

The agencies also chose their own, similar proposal, which amends 21 BLM resource management plans and eight Forest Service land use plans.

The public now has 90 days to comment on the proposals, which will affect 9.3 million acres of BLM land and 1.9 million acres of Forest Service land in Idaho and southwestern Montana. Officials say the final version likely will blend the Idaho and federal plans.

The plans do not affect private land.

Otter's office welcomed the nod for the Idaho plan, an unprecedented effort to find a state-based alternative to federal intervention. Otter appointed a panel to write the plan in hopes of preserving the livelihoods of ranchers on public lands, protecting habitat for the bird and avoiding a listing on the Endangered Species List, which would trigger tough limits on public use and development on the lands where the grouse feeds and breeds.

"At first blush it looks like we've got some things in there we can build on," said Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary.

Otter met last week with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (who oversees the BLM) and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (boss of the Forest Service), and came away encouraged.

"At least they're tipping their hat to the state effort," said Bill Myers, a former Interior solicitor who now, as a lawyer in private practice in Boise, represents ranchers. He served on the panel that helped Otter develop the plan.

THE TWO PLANS

The Otter proposal would designate millions of acres across Southern Idaho as a Sage Grouse Management Area, with three zones.

In the 4.9 million acres of "core habitat," where 73 percent of the active leks, or breeding grounds, are found, big infrastructure projects would be prohibited, with few exceptions.

Land designated "important habitat" (with 22 percent of the sage grouse leks) would be slightly less restrictive. A significant drop in the sage grouse population or habitat due to a fire would change the zone to the highest restrictions.

The BLM has three similar designations, but places 7 million acres in the category that is most restrictive.

Even though grazing is considered less of a threat than fire and development, the way the state plan would address grazing is the most controversial.

Otter's plan requires that ranchers meet Idaho Rangeland Health Standards, a series of guidelines to ensure that the desert ecosystem is functioning. The standards help agency scientists determine that native grasses and shrubs are healthy, that streamside areas and watersheds are thriving, and that habitat for sage grouse and other endangered species is protected.

But the Otter plan requires meeting these standards only if the grouse population drops or if the habitat conditions are so bad that they trigger action. This would be inconsistent with current BLM regulations, federal officials say.

'TAILORED' TO IDAHO

These differences are expected to be worked out in the final proposal, said Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokeswoman.

"We found that we could not select just one of them," Gardetto said. "We must meld the two in order to create the best plan for sage grouse conservation."

The Idaho Conservation League was one of the environmental groups that worked on the state plan, along with industry reps, ranchers and state agencies.

John Robison, ICL public lands director, said his group does not yet endorse the Otter plan but believes it is on the right track.

"We look forward to working in this process to strengthen the plan so it best meets sage grouse needs and is tailored to meet the situation in Idaho," Robison said.

Western Watersheds Project, an anti-grazing group whose lawsuits have driven much of the legal pressure on sage grouse listing and grazing cutbacks, has been a critic of the state plan, saying it doesn't give enough attention to the threat from grazing and doesn't prevent new transmission lines or energy projects.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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