Local, state officials respond to release of sage-grouse land use plans

Greater sage-grouse management areas in Utah | Image courtesy of Utah Department of Natural Resources
Greater sage-grouse management areas in Utah | Image courtesy of Utah Department of Natural Resources

ST. GEORGE – Local and state officials are responding to the release of final environmental reviews for land use plans aimed at conserving habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday the release of final environmental impact statements for land use plans in Utah.

The federal agencies say the land use plans will help conserve greater sage-grouse habitat, support sustainable economic development, and may allow the sage-grouse to stay off the endangered species list. Read the full Utah BLM Greater Sage-grouse Press Release.

State and local efforts to preserve the species have been underway for years, with hopes of both preserving the sage-grouse and preventing the bird from being listed as an endangered species.

Utah is one of 11 states with greater sage-grouse populations, and sage-grouse management areas are located in several Southern Utah counties, including a large swath of Iron County.

“As far as Iron County is concerned, we’re absolutely opposed to any kind of an endangered species listing for the sage-grouse; it’s an overreach, and it’s unnecessary,” Iron County Commissioner David Miller said. “But we also take seriously having a stewardship approach to all of our lands.”

Miller said state and local officials have implemented a very proactive effort to ensure the sage-grouse habitat is managed properly.

“The state and the county have combined to put significant monetary resources into understanding the species, the needs of the species, and, consequently, we have prepared a very significant and proactive plan,” Miller said.

“We’ve proven over and over that local, on-the-ground management is more effective than management by crisis out of Washington, D.C., driven by environmental groups who do little to nothing to help the communities in which the species exist,” Miller added.

Local efforts include biological evaluation of the habitat and identifying the location of breeding grounds, called leks, which are critical during the birds’ breeding season, Miller said, so they can be protected.

“We’ve been sensitive and proactive in how we’ve worked towards those projects,” Miller said.

The county is also working with federal partners in wildland fire planning to create fire breaks in sensitive habitat areas. The least invasive way to do that is to create zones without tall, large grasses, Miller said, which can stop wildfires from spreading quickly.

He said he has not had time to analyze the newly released final impact statements, but the county will definitely be taking advantage of the 30-day protest period.

U.S. and Utah land ownership of greater sage-grouse habitat | Image courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
U.S. and Utah land ownership of greater sage-grouse habitat | Image courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

“We will absolutely be responding,” Miller said. “But I don’t have enough details to know what or how.”

Any federal efforts are unfortunate on many fronts, Miller said.

“Not the least of which is the fact that they think that everything’s better out of Washington, which we wholeheartedly disagree with,” he said.

“If a listing occurs and you’ve got directives coming out of Washington, then it limits the ability to be able to respond to the needs on the ground in a more adept and responsible way,” Miller said.

State efforts to address sage-grouse conservation include an executive order issued by Gov. Gary R. Herbert in February 2015 designed to ensure a healthy, sustainable population of the species. The executive order directs state agencies to do their part to prevent an endangered species listing.

In April, Rep. Chris Stewart introduced legislation to help restore the greater sage-grouse population and prevent its listing under the Endangered Species Act. The bill would allow states to implement their own state-specific conservation and management plans for the recovery of the greater sage-grouse.

Gov. Gary R. Herbert and the Utah Congressional delegation issued statements following Thursday’s announcement.

Gov. Herbert:

Our state has made significant investment and is fully committed to the conservation of sage-grouse. While we will dig deeper into the proposal released today, we are already concerned that the federal agencies do not endorse certain vital conservation measures necessary for success in the Utah environment. We will continue working with the federal agencies to find the best way to advance conservation planning in Utah.

Sen. Orrin Hatch:

I am deeply disappointed by the federal government’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. Our state has spent years coordinating with key stakeholders to forge a plan that accommodates the need to protect the bird’s habitat with Utahns’ desire to develop our resources in a responsible manner. Utah deserves the opportunity to implement our effective, locally-driven solution.

Sen. Mike Lee:

The state of Utah has invested millions of dollars and coordinated across numerous state agencies to put forth a plan that will protect the sage grouse and Utahns’ access to public lands. This balance – between conservation, economic development and recreational use of lands – is one that is best struck by the people living in affected communities, not federal bureaucrats.

 Rep. Chris Stewart:

We’ve all witnessed the federal government’s poor track record of managing lands and species, which is why I’m disappointed that the BLM is mandating a federal Sage Grouse conservation plan instead of allowing Utah to manage its own state specific recovery plan. We all want to protect this beautiful bird, but our state and local communities have the expertise and passion to best manage this process.

However, others are pleased with the efforts of the BLM and the Forest Service and don’t believe an endangered species listing for the sage-grouse is inevitable.

Steve Williams, Wildlife Management Institute president and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service:

While we still need to review the details, the revised plans appear to have improved the conservation measures and assurances needed to prevent the listing. Ultimately, the decision to list the range-wide population will end up in a federal court, and the BLM has taken a positive step forward by producing plans that hopefully can be defensible to a judge.

Nada Culver, senior director for Agency Policy at the Wilderness Society:

It has been impressive and downright inspiring to see the BLM engaging in true landscape level planning focused on the need for conservation as part of managing public lands. We’ve seen the progress that can be made when you work with local communities, county and state leaders, alongside energy developers and the conservation community. This is about a lot more than the land the grouse (and the mule deer and the pronghorn antelope) call home. This is about our western way of life, our ability to maintain a healthy environment for all wildlife to flourish and the future of public lands treasured by all Americans.”

Michael Gibson, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation:

Although there is still a lot of hard work ahead of us to restore sage grouse populations, we commend the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service for working with all stakeholders, private, state and federal, in coming up with a path forward. A listing under the Endangered Species Act is in no one’s best interest, and we stand ready to help implement productive solutions for this struggling species.

Nevada Wildlife Federation President Robert Gaudet:

The Nevada Wildlife Federation welcomes the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement of plans aimed at conserving key greater sage-grouse habitat. More than half the bird’s habitat is on federal land, so we all need to work together if we want to avoid the need to place sage-grouse on the Endangered Species List and restrict the use of public lands. The cooperation of all the stakeholders kept the bi-state population of grouse in Nevada and California from being listed, and the same can work for other greater sage-grouse.

Land management plans

The land management plans, developed over the past three years, will benefit wildlife, outdoor recreation, ranching and other traditional land uses that rely on a healthy sagebrush landscape, the BLM and the Forest Service said in a joint press statement.

The updated Utah plan is an element of a proactive strategy to respond to the deteriorating health of the American West’s sagebrush landscapes and declining population of the greater sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The collaborative federal and state effort includes three elements to conserve the sagebrush landscape: a strategy to fight rangeland fire, conservation plans for federal public lands, and conservation actions on state and private lands. 

“The West is rapidly changing – with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said.

The final environmental impact statement will guide land management on approximately 4 million acres of BLM and Forest Service-administered land primarily in Utah. The final EIS is the result of a multiyear public process, including public scoping sessions, public meetings and public comment periods on the draft EIS. The plans are now undergoing a 60-day Governor’s Consistency Review period and concurrent 30-day protest period, after which Records of Decision will be signed.

The plans address issues identified by the Forest Service in a 2010 determination that found the greater sage-grouse was deserving of protection under the ESA due to the inadequacy of regulatory protections. Federal protection was deferred because of higher priorities; however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to revisit the determination by Sept. 30, 2015.

In an effort to avoid needing to list the bird in 2011, then-Secretary Ken Salazar and several Western governors formed the Sage-Grouse Task Force to develop a cooperative approach to conserving the species. 

The plans offer the highest level of protection in the most valuable habitat, the joint press release said. Within priority habitat, the plans limit or eliminate new surface disturbance, particularly in sagebrush focal areas identified as essential for the species’ survival; while minimizing disturbance in general habitat management areas, which require special management but are not considered important habitat.

In Utah, the plans identify 583,000 acres as general habitat and 2.7 million acres as priority habitat. Within priority habitat, 228,500 acres have been identified as sagebrush focal areas.

Compared to other states, sage-grouse habitat in Utah is highly fragmented; the Utah plan proposes management based on actual sage-grouse populations rather than just habitat.

“We will continue to work with our state and local partners with the shared goal of establishing strong, science-based management and conservation commitments across the range of the bird that allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude the protections of the Endangered Species Act are not needed for the greater sage-grouse,” BLM Utah Acting State Director Jenna Whitlock said.

The plans honor all valid existing rights, including those for oil and gas development, renewable energy, rights-of-way, locatable minerals and other permitted projects, according to the press release. The plan measures only apply to BLM and USFS-managed lands and minerals.

More than 350 other species rely on a healthy sagebrush habitat, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn and golden eagles. 

Protest period

Any person who participated in the planning process for the proposed plan and has an interest that is or may be adversely affected by the plan may protest approval of this proposed plan during the 30-day protest period. The protest period runs through June 29. Submit protest issues using the following methods:

Regular Mail:
BLM Director (210)
Attention: Protest Coordinator
P.O. Box 71383
Washington, D.C.  20024-1383                                                               

Overnight Delivery:
BLM Director (210)
Attention: Protest Coordinator
20 M Street SE, Room 2134LM
Washington, D.C. 20003

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