Changes in the management of federal lands could occur in Wyoming, where about 38% of the world’s birds live in a landscape heavily used by state industries.
Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile
Citing population decline, climate change, habitat loss and other factors, the Bureau of Land Management will revise western conservation plans for the sage grouse, including in Wyoming where about 38% of birds live in a landscape heavily used by state industries.
The bureau’s announcement Monday will affect habitat conservation and restoration plans in 10 states, covering 67 million acres managed by the agency, according to a notice in the Federal Register. The review marks another turnaround for the endangered bird, which has been a sort of political ping-pong stolen between political parties and administrations.
The BLM found that existing grouse conservation plans “are potentially incompatible with new science and rapid changes affecting BLM’s management of public lands,” the agency said. These include climate change, drought, habitat loss, more frequent forest fires, and shrinking riparian areas.
The review will affect more than 70 grouse conservation plans through environmental impact statements that will address not only the area of the BLM, but also the oil, gas and coal reserves the agency administers on private land.
The new science and the new conditions deserve revisions to the conservation plans adopted in 2015 that were forged to prevent the US Fish and Wildlife Service from officially declaring the bird in danger as threatened or endangered. While there is no precise estimate of the number of sage-grouse in the west, wildlife agencies are tracking trends, which show a significant decline over many years, federal scientists say.
The review will also take into account “people who depend on sagebrush lands to support their livelihoods and traditions,” the BLM said. But breeders are wary of more restrictive conservation standards.
The new management “creates a lot of unease,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Wyoming’s sage grouse plan, implemented under a governors order and including local task forces, should satisfy the BLM and not require changes, he said.
“It’s high time” for an ambitious plan
The BLM’s review will focus on “sagebrush focal areas,” where conservationists say preventing habitat disturbance is paramount. The review will consider requiring the replacement of lost habitat and no-go buffer zones around the leks of the breeding grounds. Cattle grazing, mineral rentals, and management of wild horses and burros will also be scrutinized, along with invasive plant species and forest fires.
BLM’s announcement reinvigorated environmentalists. “It is high time to develop an ambitious plan to protect the sage grouse and save the sea from sagebrush,” Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. “If the Bureau simply took seriously limiting livestock grazing and industrial use in Sage-Grouse habitat, it would go a long way in protecting the species.” “
Conservation will require “significant changes in the way business enterprises operate in Sage-Grouse habitats,” her statement said.
The group, which opposes cattle grazing on public lands, found existing conservation plans “riddled with loopholes, [that] failed to protect much of the priority habitat, ”Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement. The protections are “far less than what we know sage grouse need to survive based on science,” he said.
The review is “an opportunity to take a scientific approach and stop the sage grouse’s slow slide to extinction,” Michael Saul, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
Wyoming has its own plan
Wyoming sage grouse team leader Bob Budd told WyoFile he is confident in the Wyoming grouse conservation plans and is confident they could use fine tuning at most. .
“We don’t believe in an inclusive restart process,” he said. “I hope we don’t end up going out and throwing a net as wide as the [BLM] opinion says.
Wyoming has methods in place to address some of the BLM’s concerns, Budd said, including mineral leasing and grazing. For ranchers, he said, it’s unrealistic to require, for example, that they leave stubble at a certain height after grazing – around 6 inches – for grouse cover.
“Science says there is variability – you don’t just take a number and say it’s the magic number,” Budd said.
The state also has a system to compensate for lost habitat. “In Wyoming, we’ve set standards from how development will unfold to where we avoid, minimize, and provide compensatory mitigation,” Budd said. “The rental itself isn’t the problem, it’s how you develop. “
He also cautioned against drawing long-term conclusions about historical population numbers. Wyoming did not adopt a rigorous system for estimating grouse numbers until the mid to late 1980s, he said. Today, the state inspects hundreds of nesting leks each year to help determine population trends, well beyond the “handful of lek counts” used previously.
“Am I worried? No, “he said.” Am I concerned? Yes. ” Concerned about the invasion of conifers on sagebrush lands, concerned about invasive species and “of course” concerned about rural subdivisions.
Oil and gas companies see the review as “just another attempt to shut down the industry in Wyoming,” said Ryan McConnaughey, spokesperson for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. “The Biden administration is doing everything possible to end the leasing of federal lands,” he said.
Industry is participating in the sage grouse implementation team and local groups, he said. “The Wyoming plan is working,” he said, “and I think any sort of federal mandate that treats all states the same is inappropriate. “
Magagna, cattle ranchers, highlighted three key conservation measures essential to the interests of public pastures. One is the separation of Wyoming from other western states.
“Wyoming has been proactive in protecting the sage grouse and its habitat,” he said, after instituting SGIT ahead of federal discussions regarding the protection of the Endangered Species Act, said he declared. ” We hope [the BLM] would continue this approach.
The height of thatch after grazing shouldn’t fall under a western-wide standard, he said. Some areas cannot support a 6 or 7 inch high blanket “even before grazing,” he said.
Mugwort focal areas – areas within the main habitat that would be off-limits to development – are also unnecessary, he said. He wants a critical habitat designation, Magagna said, not layers.
The safeguards currently in place are adequate, he said. But climate change was not a factor taken into account when setting them. It’s emergence as a new element “makes me nervous,” he said. The BLM will accept comments from the public on the scope of topics its review is expected to cover until February 7, 2022. Comments can be submitted through the agency’s electronic planning website. .
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places and politics of Wyoming.