Letters from the West

BLM shows its hand on mining limits aimed at protecting sage grouse

A flying sage grouse in the sun. The Obama administration has released a draft plan to withdraw 10 million acres of federal lands in six states including Idaho from future mining claims in strongholds of the bird that depends on sagebrush habitat.
A flying sage grouse in the sun. The Obama administration has released a draft plan to withdraw 10 million acres of federal lands in six states including Idaho from future mining claims in strongholds of the bird that depends on sagebrush habitat.

The Bureau of Land Management Thursday proposed to withdraw from future mining claims 10 million acres of public lands where sage grouse populations are strong, including 3.8 million in Idaho.

The draft environmental impact statement, which is expected to be published in the Federal Register Friday, includes several alternatives including one submitted by Idaho, which would withdraw 538,742 acres of federally controlled public land with high and moderate mineral potential in the state. The Idaho alternative also would include a buffer to simplify geographic and administrative boundaries.

In addition to Idaho, the withdrawal includes federal lands in Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. In Idaho the proposal would withdraw 3,854,622 acres of which 3,603,942 acres are lands managed by the BLM and 250,680 acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The lands withdrawal from claims include much of southern Owyhee County, a swath of Shoshone County and a chunk in Custer County, primarily east and south of the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains. Other areas are withdrawn in Butte, Lemhi, Clark and Jefferson counties.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell first announced the proposed withdrawal in September 2015, as part of the Obama administration's landscape-scale conservation plan to prevent the listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. It will be up to the Trump administration to decide whether to go through with the withdrawals that scientists said were necessary to ensure the iconic bird of the sagebrush sea does not go extinct.

The BLM held public meetings in November 2015 and incorporated a mineral resource assessment prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey, which predicted future development. Idaho had worked closely with the BLM and Jewell in the planning until late in the process, when the agencies added strongholds called Sagebrush Focal Areas to the withdrawals.

That prompted Idaho and several other states and industry groups to sue to stop the plans. Western Watersheds Project and some other environmental groups also challenged the plans as not strong enough.

A congressional rider, which has not passed yet, would give states the right to put their plans in place instead of the federal plan, even though the lands are managed by the federal government.

Historically, sage grouse numbered in the millions but have dwindled to 200,000 to 500,000. The sagebrush ecosystem also supports another 350 other animal and plant species.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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