Otter finds major ally on grouse, power line

Idaho's governor and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell work to keep the bird off the endangered list and get the Gateway West project built.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comNovember 23, 2013 

  • WHAT'S AT STAKE?

    Sage Grouse

    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. A sage grouse endangered species 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 creatures 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 invasive cheat grass through frequent fires.

    Gateway West Transmission Line

    The 990-mile, 500-kilovolt power line from Glenrock, Wyo., to Murphy would be built by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power with transmission towers 150 to 180 feet tall. The line, which could carry as much as 1,200 megawatts of electricity, was proposed at a time when electricity demand was high and supplies were barely adequate. The White House has identified the line as critical to developing renewable energy - especially wind - and has made the line's completion a priority.

    Rocky Mountain Power hopes to begin construction on the eastern portion soon. Idaho Power does not have the line in its 20-year plan, so it's not clear when the western sections would be built.

    If built as envisioned, the line ultimately could connect to Oregon and link energy resources in Wyoming to markets on the West Coast.

Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter had a single request for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell when they met in Washington in late October.

"What the governor said is, 'What I really want is a seat at the table,' " said Otter's chief counsel, Tom Perry, who was at the meeting. "And Jewell said, 'Yeah, you've got one.' "

In the two weeks following the meeting, the Bureau of Land Management announced actions that demonstrated Idaho had won that seat. Now, the state and the feds must decide how far they are willing to go to keep working together on two of the most sweeping and contentious land management issues in Southern Idaho.

First, BLM chose "co-preferred" alternatives for a sage grouse conservation plan to amend 21 resource management plans and eight Forest Service land use plans over 10 million acres of public land in Idaho and Montana. One of the two alternatives was the Idaho sage grouse plan written by a team Otter created.

The plans are designed to help keep the sage grouse from becoming an endangered species, a decision that could limit livestock grazing, energy development and growth across the West.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has set 2015 as the deadline for the federal agency to deliver sage grouse plans that cover the entire region, dictating decisions this coming spring.

"It is essential that the state and the federal agencies pull in the same direction," said Will Whelan, public affairs director for the Nature Conservancy of Idaho.

A week after the grouse plan decision, Jewell announced a final recommendation for the 990-mile Gateway West Transmission Line across Wyoming and Idaho - including a decision to defer choosing the route for two lines near the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area south of Kuna. The BLM announced it would resurrect discussions among stakeholders to work on finding alternatives to routes through Kuna and across private land in Owyhee County that local and state officials oppose.

But the BLM decision on the Gateway route did include corridors through Power and Cassia counties opposed by local officials. The BLM said it simply had no other choice because it has to avoid high-quality sagebrush habitat critical to the survival of the grouse.

Otter's version of the sage grouse plan would have allowed the alternative routes preferred by local officials, though with more costs and risks to the birds.

"If we have a reasonable alternative that is feasible, we should have control," said Doug Balfour, a Pocatello attorney who represents Power and Cassia counties.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

The two-pronged Gateway decision showed how hard the sides will have to work to find common ground on a final sage grouse plan. And since Idaho gives county governments power over energy-siting decisions, the counties still have the ability to block Gateway unless the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission steps in.

Finding a way to avoid such a showdown while protecting the grouse is in both sides' interest.

Otter's sage grouse plan has the flexibility to garner wide support, so that Idaho can go into Winmill's court supporting the federal government with key environmental groups on board. That approach worked when both Winmill and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals backed Idaho's alternative roadless plan in 2012.

The Idaho and BLM plans have much in common. Both have triggers that require more limits and conservation measures if sage grouse habitat is destroyed by fire or if the number of birds plummet. Both ban development in the highest-quality habitat.

Idaho places 4.9 million acres in that category, and allows some exceptions; the BLM labels 7 million acres as the most restrictive in a different arrangement. The Idaho plan takes a different approach on grazing decisions, but Perry said Idaho's approach actually offers more concrete steps sooner.

A MODEL FOR OTHERS

That's why Otter is urging the BLM to not just accept the Idaho approach, but also to get other states on board so they can present a united front in court.

"As I expressed again to Secretary Jewell in Washington last month, my collaborative sage grouse plan establishes a model for the kind of approach that's needed," Otter said.

Tim Murphy, acting BLM director for Idaho, is optimistic that the agency and the state will be able to take the best parts of both plans and meld them. To meet the 2015 deadline, that has to happen by February 2014.

"There's a very high potential that we'll be able to consolidate conservation efforts that will not require a listing of sage grouse," Murphy said.

But having a seat at the table means Idaho also has to show that it's not working solely on federal land. The state needs to show it is protecting the sage grouse everywhere.

SAGE GROUSE

From New Mexico to Washington, about 60 percent of the 53 million acres of sage grouse habitat is on federally managed public land. The remainder is state and private land, said Steve Ellis, acting BLM deputy director of operations and, until recently, Idaho BLM state director.

Without knowing the health, size and stability of the bird populations on state and private lands, it will make approving a flexible plan for the federal lands that much harder for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In Idaho, more than a fourth of the 12.7 million acres of sage grouse habitat is on private/state land. But the plans now being written are aimed at guiding management on federal lands.

Whelan was one of the people who helped Idaho develop its plan and says it's a good foundation. But he said the state should do more to ensure the grouse has broad protection.

"We would also like to see the state develop an action plan to help sage grouse on all land ownerships in Idaho," Whelan said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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