BLM sage-grouse guidance ruffles some enviro feathers

Reactions from conservation groups both nationally and on the ground in Colorado have been mixed regarding this week’s U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) guidance for the preservation of habitat for the greater sage grouse.

The size of small chickens, the wild, mostly ground-bound birds are found on up to 47 million acres of federal land managed by the BLM in 10 western states, including Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Scientists say the bird is a key indicator species, but that populations have declined by up to 90 percent over the last century because of energy development, mining, grazing, residential development and invasive species of weeds in sagebrush country.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2010 recommended the sage grouse for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but the bird was essentially relegated to regulatory limbo when the agency declared that other species are higher priorities. But in September a federal judge approved a settlement with environmental groups requiring listing decisions on 253 species within five years.

That started the clock ticking on the sage grouse. ESA listing could have a significant impact on oil and gas drilling and other energy development on public lands, industry officials and government regulators say. The BLM guidance, part of a larger conservation strategy, is an attempt to head off that ESA listing.

“The aim of these science-based measures is to maintain and restore flourishing populations of greater sage grouse and sagebrush habitat,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said in a release. “We are working to do this in a way that protects the health of our land, while also facilitating safe and responsible energy development and recreational opportunities that power our economy.

“By proactively addressing sage grouse conservation concerns on BLM lands, we also hope to maintain the widest possible range of options for our neighboring landowners.”

The BLM issued two IM’s (Instructional Memorandums) on Tuesday, one of which outlines sage grouse policy for oil and gas leasing, mining, grazing and other approved uses of public lands. A second IM says the BLM must consider sage grouse habitat in long-term land-management planning. But some conservation groups aren’t impressed.

“In cases where BLM officials want to ignore the welfare of sage grouse and ram through projects that are detrimental, there will be little in the new policy to stop them,” Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said in a release. “The interim policy is written with such loose language that BLM officials will have the latitude to do anything they want — or nothing at all — to protect the grouse.”

Colorado conservation groups also expressed concerns.

“Sage grouse are an iconic species of the West. When we see a lot of them, we know the ecosystem is healthy. But if they’re not doing well, we know it’s not healthy for the other critters, either,” said Bill Dvorak of Dvorak Expeditions in Nathrop, Colo. Dvorak is also a public lands coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation.

“Everyone – hunters, anglers, ranchers, energy companies, government — needs to work together for common sense solutions to saving a bird that’s an important part of the landscape and our Western heritage,” Dvorak added.

The BLM’s interim management plan won’t apply in Wyoming because the state’s guidance has already been approved by the USFWS and adopted by the BLM. Earlier this month, Interior Secretary and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar met with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and representatives from eight other states to hash out next steps in the sage-grouse habitat preservation strategy.

Matt Copeland of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation was just happy to see the federal government taking action in a productive way.

“As a Wyoming sportsman personally and working in that capacity, I’m excited to see anything going forward that’s going to protect the greater sagebrush steppe,” Copeland said. “Sage grouse is one of the iconic species and it’s the one getting the legal and media attention, but taking steps to protect that bird can protect critical habitat for so many species.”

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