The swath of land on each side of state Highway 75 just north of the Blaine-Lincoln county line is virtually undisturbed, at least to the naked eye—acre after acre of unbroken sagebrush, home to species such as elk, mule deer, pygmy rabbits and the greater sage grouse.
However, one piece of land east of the highway, known as Site 10A, could be the site of a new airport that would disturb some 940 acres of the now-empty federally owned land. As the valley anxiously awaits the release of a draft environmental impact statement for the new airport, evidence is mounting that the land's current tenants may prove a significant—and expensive—impediment.
State and federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game have already weighed in on one part of the EIS—the Federal Aviation Administration's Wildlife Report. While the larger statement will address impacts on everything from floodplains and the economy to noise and historic sites, the wildlife report was sent out specifically to address the airport's potential impact on the region's wildlife.
The FAA refused to publicly release what it called a "draft" wildlife report as of press time, but information can be gleaned from the written comments of those allowed to preview the document.
Overwhelmingly, the wildlife agencies responded with concern over the loss of sage grouse habitat. An estimated 543 grouse were found wintering on the site during a survey by the Department of Fish and Game in February, renewing concerns that development could harm the species.
Sage grouse were listed as a candidate species for federal protection last year, due in part to habitat fragmentation, a fact pointed out in an April letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the FAA.
"The development of an airport ... will contribute to one of the primary listing factors (i.e., fragmentation) for this species," the letter reads, adding that the service recommends preserving all existing sagebrush-steppe habitat in the region.
Fish and Game expressed similar concerns in three written comments to the FAA, adding its objections to those of the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, which argued that sage grouse are "imperiled" by habitat loss.
Scott Boettger, executive director of Hailey-based conservation group the Wood River Land Trust, said saving the grouse hinges on preserving large areas of unbroken habitat such as Site 10A.
"We spend millions of dollars trying to save these species, and what we're doing is trying to protect the habitat," Boettger said. "[Site 10A] is one of the strongholds, because it isn't fragmented."
Call for mitigation
The report does call for mitigation, with the FAA proposing replacing sagebrush habitat in a ratio of two acres replaced for every one sacrificed for the new airport. The mitigation plan also would require an even replacement of the loss of big-game habitat.
According to Fish and Game's comment, that would mean 1,880 acres of sagebrush habitat would need to be enhanced or created, plus 592 acres of big-game habitat. The number is far less for the alternative Site 12A, along the Blaine-Camas County line, a total of 260 acres of habitat.
Mitigation is not as simple as it would appear on the surface, said Fish and Game staff biologist Mike McDonald, who wrote the department's comments.
"To get credit for mitigation you have to either create something or make something better," he said. "Just going out and securing a piece of property without taking any action really doesn't change anything."
But action would equal money in this case, a point made by the Fish and Wildlife Service in an April letter to the FAA.
"It may not be economically feasible or biologically possible to provide adequate mitigation to address the direct loss of 940 acres of intact sagebrush-steppe habitat," the letter reads.
While Fish and Game's letter does not suggest specific mitigation measures, Boettger said habitat mitigation would likely require acquisition of private lands. The Fish and Wildlife Service stated in a December 2010 letter to the FAA that creating sagebrush habitat could take up to 40 years.
Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project, said the best—and cheapest—option for mitigation would be a voluntary grazing permit buyout and retirement. He said similar programs have worked in Oregon and in Bear Valley near Stanley, and could provide protection for hundreds of thousands of acres of sagebrush for what Marvel estimates would be $1.5 million to $2.5 million dollars. He called that an insignificant part of the estimated $327 million cost to construct a new airport.
But Boettger said he doubted the buyout would be effective enough, since grouse use Site 10A for wintering, lekking and nesting. Lekking is a grouse mating ritual during which young males gather and display their plumage to attract females.
"To take the cattle off of one spot, you might be helping the nesting habitat, but not the lekking or the wintering," Boettger said. "It's not like these 540 animals can get up and move somewhere else. They need those specific conditions that are found on that site."
Apart from the costs of mitigation, sage grouse could cause day-to-day concerns over ongoing costs and potential damages at either site.
"There are certainly challenges you have when you have an airport in bird habitat," said Raymond Bishop, manager of the Jackson Hole Airport in western Wyoming.
The resort-area airport was built in sage grouse habitat in 1936, and Bishop said the grouse have caused damages and other ongoing costs for the airport.
"Grouse are a potentially listed species," he said. "You have a wildlife management plan, you can manage things, but it's very difficult and very expensive."
Bishop estimated his airport spends $100,000 a year for biologists to research and monitor the birds, an estimate that doesn't include either the cost of needed radio collars or the aircraft damages that grouse can cause. Last year, the Jackson Hole Airport had eight bird strikes, one of which did $50,000 in damages to an airplane.
"It's not uncommon for a bird strike to do a million or two worth of damage," Bishop said. "If you have a grouse go through a jet engine, they're big enough that they'll take out the engine."
Bishop said that hasn't happened in Jackson Hole yet, but birds have hit wings and cockpits.
All eyes to the EIS
Still, agencies are reluctant to speculate on what this data means for the replacement airport, or what the draft EIS will recommend.
Rick Baird, manager of Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, said current airport operations do have to work around wildlife such as birds and coyotes, but no listed or protected species.
"I don't know that there's an airport in the country that doesn't have some conflict between aircraft and wildlife," Baird said. "From our perspective, that's what the environmental impact study is about, what the impact would be."
Biologist McDonald said Fish and Game would have to wait for the EIS to be released before making specific recommendations on habitat mitigation.
"At that point, we'll probably make some more pointed suggestions," he said. "Until we get a handle on the potential effects of the analysis, discussion of specific rates of mitigation are premature."
Blaine County commissioners said last week that they would wait for the draft EIS before seeking alternatives to a replacement airport, adding their names to the long list of agencies and county residents anxiously awaiting the statement's projected May 27 release—a list that includes Baird himself.
"We're on the edge of our seat to see what the FAA comes out with," he said.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org