Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued an order Tuesday aimed at reducing the frequency and intensity of wildfires across vital sagebrush habitat in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.
The strategy Jewell approved will begin during the 2015 fire season. It is intended to reduce the size, severity and cost of rangeland fire and curb the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species.
“Targeted action is urgently needed to conserve habitat for the greater sage-grouse and other wildlife in the Great Basin, as well as to maintain ranching and recreation economies that depend on sagebrush landscapes,” said Jewell.
The order establishes a Rangeland Fire Task Force, chaired by Interior’s Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and including five assistant secretaries, and lays out the goals and timelines for reducing fire and cheatgrass.
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Jewell is working with Western governors to improve wildland firefighting capacity at all levels, highlighting a proactive voluntary partnership with ranchers, farmers and other landowners to conserve the sagebrush landscape on private and public lands. Interior brought together fire experts and land managers at the federal, state and local levels at a conference in Boise in November where they discussed a landscape-scale strategy for rangeland fire suppression and prevention.
It has been less than two months since that conference, including a Christmas holiday, and Interior has been able to turn the recommendations of a collaborative group into a policy that addresses both the short-term and long-term threats to sagebrush, said Will Whelan, public affairs director for The Nature Conservancy of Idaho, who has worked closely with Gov. Butch Otter on sage grouse conservation.
Fire and invasive species spread are rated the greatest threat to sage grouse, which is under review for listing as an endangered species in 11 Western states. Jewell's order connected both federal and state initiatives, such as Idaho's rangeland fire associations, with a long-term funding program.
The test will come when fire managers at the National Interagency Fire Center are faced with sending resources to fight fires burning in sagebrush when fire is threatening other values such as air quality or less imminent threats to communities.