Friday, August 3, 2012

County: Grouse plan may be harmful

Unauthorized trails could also harm grouse


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Sage grouse are known for their elaborate mating rituals. Express file photo

Blaine County commissioners have urged the BLM to consider the impacts of a sage-grouse conservation plan on the county's recreation-based economy.

In a letter to the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service dated July 19, the commissioners stated that Blaine County should be considered separately from counties in the rest of the state when the BLM prepares its environmental impact statement for a regional conservation plan.

The plan was developed in response to a decision in March 2010 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the species was warranted for protection but was excluded because of limited resources devoted to other, higher-priority species.

According to a scoping summary of the preliminary plan, the BLM and Forest Service developed a plan to include more conservation measures within the agencies' current land-use plans. The plan was based on public comment and scientific data.

The draft plan outlines critical habitat for the bird, plans to monitor the impact of land use—such as development and recreation—on sage grouse in those areas, as well as ways to conserve, enhance or restore habitat.

However, the plan states that these efforts to protect the grouse might have an impact on ranchers, who typically use sagebrush-dominated areas on public lands for grazing. A draft environmental impact statement would include a detailed study of the impact of a plan on agriculture and livestock production.

The Blaine County commissioners pointed out in their comment to the agencies that conservation may have another impact.

Initial surveys show that hiking and biking trails in the south valley, such as the Punchline mountain biking trail west of Hailey and the Carbonate trail in the Croy Creek drainage, receive roughly 13 uses per trail per day—many of which are by visitors, who bring roughly $227 million to the economy each year, according to a study conducted by the Sustain Blaine economic development group.

The concern, the letter states, is that sage grouse conservation efforts might cause a recreation trail plan to be suspended.

The BLM is currently working with the county on a travel management system that would call for construction of 50 miles of new mountain biking trails while shutting down illegal or user-created trails in the area north of Highway 20.

"Blaine County is concerned that the possibility of suspending ... trail planning and implementation to protect the species will actually have a detrimental impact," the letter states.

If trails are not created by the BLM or other agencies, the commissioners argued, recreationists will form their own trails that do not take sage grouse leks, where the birds carry out courtship displays, into consideration.

"Trail users have been promised a completed trail network and have, for the most part, refrained from bootleg trail building because of the expectation of additional trails," the letter states. "New unplanned and unauthorized trails may jeopardize the statewide sage-grouse planning effort."

The draft EIS is set to be released in January.

Kate Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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