By refusing to reduce livestock grazing, proposals offered by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to manage sage grouse across the West will not do enough to keep the birds off the endangered species list, conservationists involved in the process contend.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, due to habitat degradation, many local sage grouse populations in the West could disappear in the next several decades, leaving the remaining fragmented population vulnerable to extinction. In 2010, the agency announced that the bird was “warranted” for listing as an endangered species, but would not be listed due to higher-priority listings of other species. A court order required the agency to make a decision by September 2015.
“The problem with reducing grazing
in the ecosystem is
that you increase fuels and increase the
chances for fire.”
University of Idaho
The federal agencies’ recovery proposals are contained in a series of 15 draft “subregional” plans to manage sage grouse in 10 states. A draft plan for Idaho and southwestern Montana—13th in the series—was released Nov. 1.
According to the plan, 51 percent of sagebrush landscape in the area is on BLM land, including 1.1 million acres of “priority” sage grouse habitat managed by the BLM’s Shoshone Field Office. Ten percent of the area’s sagebrush habitat is on national forests.
One of the plan’s two preferred alternatives is based on a proposal drawn up by a federal agency team in 2011 and the other on the Idaho Governor’s Alternative. The preferred alternatives would limit development and off-road travel, increase efforts to prevent and suppress wildfire, and more strictly manage livestock grazing, though the acreage open to grazing would remain unchanged.
“All of these plans are following the same trend—they are choosing preferred alternatives that the best available science says are insufficient to conserve the species,” said Mark Salvo, federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife.
Neither of two alternatives proposed by conservationists was selected. Both would substantially reduce grazing.
Conservationists claim that grazing has degraded sage-grouse habitat and increased the frequency of range fires by spreading the growth of cheatgrass. They say an understory of cheatgrass, an exotic species, prevents the recovery of native plants essential for sage grouse food, cover and nesting.
Katie Fite, biodiversity director with the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, called the draft plans “business as usual.”
“It’s a situation that cries out for dramatic changes in livestock grazing, and it’s not there,” Fite said. “It seems like nobody has the nerve to tell the livestock industry, ‘Look, you’ve got to make big changes.’”
Conservationists contend that the most effective way to return degraded lands to a healthy state is to replant them with native seeds, give the areas a several-year rest from grazing, then reduce or eliminate livestock on important sage grouse habitat. They say numerous scientific studies, including some done by the BLM itself, back up those claims. The agencies’ preferred alternatives, Fite contends, have “abandoned science.”
Karen Launchbaugh, a professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Idaho, has a contrary view. She acknowledges that heavy, poorly timed grazing can promote the growth of cheatgrass, but says properly targeted grazing can actually improve sage-grouse habitat.
“The problem with reducing grazing in the ecosystem is that you increase fuels and increase the chances for fire,” she said. “The goal is to manage grazing in a way that does not degrade sage-grouse cover but does reduce fuels. It’s the amount of grazing but it’s also seasons.”
Launchbaugh advocates putting cattle onto the land in early spring when cheatgrass is one of the few plants to have emerged, as well as late in the season. She said the time to avoid grazing sage-grouse habitat is during the late spring and summer when the native plants are flowering.
“Properly grazed systems have less cheatgrass than improperly grazed systems or not-grazed systems,” she said.
But Fite claims that rangelands infested with cheatgrass would have to be “practically turned into a dustbowl” to have much effect on the incidence of range fires.
The stakes involved in keeping sage grouse off the endangered species list are high. Dustin Miller, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, said listing would be “crippling to the economy in Idaho.”
“The regulatory burdens associated with a listing of sage grouse would make it very difficult for federal land managers to authorize and administer land-use activities in and around sage-grouse habitat,” he said. “Everything from energy development, to recreation and livestock grazing would be negatively impacted by a listing.”
Even so, Miller called the Idaho Governor’s Alternative the best option for precluding a need to list the species, on the grounds that it provides for the needs of sage grouse while maintaining “predictable” levels of land-use activity.
Kathleen Hendricks, conservation partnership branch chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho, said the agency worked closely with the BLM and Forest Service to develop alternatives for the draft plan. However, she said it has played no role in selecting the preferred alternatives.
A 90-day public comment period on the draft plan will be open until Jan. 29. A final plan is scheduled to be completed by fall 2014. Hendricks said that if the Fish and Wildlife Service concludes that the draft plans’ preferred alternatives will be inadequate to conserve sage grouse, it will provide a comment to that effect.
In an annual review of candidate species released Oct. 28, the agency stated that even though it had determined that existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to protect sage grouse, many habitat impacts are being actively addressed through conservation actions taken by local working groups and state and federal agencies.
Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Salvo said he hopes public input will prompt the BLM and Forest Service to change its preferred alternatives.
“It’s not too late to improve these subregional plans so that they will benefit sage grouse,” he said.
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org