Guest Opinion: Time for a “Grouseroots” comment campaign

A male greater sage-grouse prances atop a ridge of sagebrush on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced it is considering updates to rangewide management plans for sagebrush habitat adopted under the Obama and Trump administrations to protect the greater sage-grouse.

The sagebrush habitat is considered essential to the long-term health of sage grouse populations and more than 350 other species. Since implementing the Sage-Grouse Plan Amendments under the Obama administration in 2015, later modified under the Trump administration in 2019, BLM found the amendments are inconsistent with new science and “rapid changes affecting the BLM’s management of the public lands, including the effects of climate change.” 

BLM will conduct a scoping period to look at the new science and the effects of climate change and seek comments on conservation and management of areas known as “Sagebrush Focal Areas” in the 2015 and 2019 Sage-Grouse Plan Amendments. 

BLM previously announced it was revising Sagebrush Focal Areas after a judgment in the Idaho District Court vacated the Trump administration’s decision to open up more areas of sagebrush habitat to mineral development and grazing. The affected lands totaled 10 million acres in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Additionally, the BLM seeks information on the following topics related to the proposed changes during the scoping period: 

• Designation of priority and general habitat management areas for sage grouse and how to adapt these management areas over time. 

• Mitigation hierarchy and compensatory mitigation to address impacts to sagebrush habitat and address conservation and restoration.

• Leasing and development of renewable energy. 

• Livestock grazing and wild horse and burro populations in sage grouse and sagebrush habitat.

• Strategies for habitat restoration. 

• The role of wildfires and invasive species. 

• Short- and long-term monitoring of sage grouse and sagebrush habitat. 

“The BLM is committed to reversing long-term downward trends in sage grouse populations and habitats in a manner that fulfills our multiple-use and sustained yield mission and meets the needs of Western communities,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “We remain dedicated to working closely with states, local governments, Tribes and other partners who have worked in a collaborative and bipartisan fashion for more than a decade toward sustainable and balanced management of sagebrush habitat.”

A report by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) shows continued grazing by livestock benefits sage grouse habitat and nesting, contrary to previous grazing practices. 

BLM is reviewing the 2015 and 2019 Sage-Grouse Plan Amendments and, according to the notice in the Federal Register, will “work collaboratively with interested parties to identify land use planning decisions that are best suited to local, regional and national needs and concerns.” 

Stone-Manning said in a statement the 2015 plan “established a solid foundation.” Still, BLM is asking whether “there are other steps we should take given new science to improve outcomes for sage grouse and also for people in communities across the West who rely on a healthy sagebrush steppe.”

Kaitlynn Glover, Public Lands Council executive director and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association executive director of Natural Resources, said BLM must focus on sound science and partnerships with ranchers and land managers who will have the greatest impact on supporting the bird’s habitat.

“For years, ranchers have demonstrated that the conservation measures they have put in place on their private lands and on their federal grazing allotments have been the cornerstone of a holistic and successful conservation approach,” Glover said in a statement. “Federal sage grouse plans have been tied up in court for years, and it’s long past time that ranchers, land managers and the agencies have a clear path forward.” 

Comments may be submitted in writing until Feb. 7, 2022, at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2016719/510. If there are any public meetings, they will be announced in local media 15 days before the planned meeting. 

Oil and gas leases

The announcement comes amid the news BLM is scaling back new oil and gas lease sales in Wyoming and Colorado to protect sage grouse habitat. 

The BLM Wyoming office initially held a scoping period for oil and gas leases on 459 parcels but scaled back to 195 parcels, totaling about 179,001 acres in oil and gas lease sales for the first quarter of 2022. The parcels are in the Buffalo, Casper, Newcastle, Pinedale, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Cody, Lander and Worland field office boundaries. The parcels struck from the sale represent about 382,882 acres of priority habitat management areas for greater sage-grouse. 

A finding of no significant impact (FONSI) was issued in November after preparing an environmental assessment, and it found that some of the parcels are still in “general” sage grouse habitats. However, the FONSI states the sage grouse would not be adversely affected due to surface use restrictions. In the press release, BLM states each parcel will be subject to separate analysis and that “all parcels will include appropriate protections and stipulations, such as seasonal timing limitations and controlled surface use to protect sage grouse habitat and other important natural resources.”

A team of 94 scientists and specialists from 34 federal and state agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations assessed the sagebrush ecosystem, covering 14 Western states and two Canadian provinces.

Audubon Rockies Policy and Outreach Director Daly Edmunds told WyoFile the move by BLM appears to placate the legal wrangling that has taken place over the past few years and is an attempt to return to the collaborative process established in the 2015 sage grouse management plan. Edmunds pointed to reports by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies that show the sage grouse population is declining due to oil and gas development pressures and invasive species such as cheatgrass. 

In a separate announcement, BLM Colorado state officials announced that as a result of scoping comments and an internal analysis—including consideration of protecting greater sage-grouse habitat—it is reducing its oil and gas lease sales scheduled in 2022 from the original 119 parcels covering 141,675 acres to five parcels covering 5,275 acres. The lease sale contains parcels in Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties in the northwest portion of the state. The FONSI documents do not indicate if the remaining parcels are in sage grouse habitat. 

The Center for Biological Diversity decried the announcements, stating while it deferred some acres to protect imperiled species, it did not cancel all the leases for climate mitigation.

“Just as it has the authority to stop leasing to protect imperiled species, the Biden administration has authority to stop leasing to protect our imperiled climate,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The administration’s refusal to halt fossil fuel expansion on federal lands and waters makes a mockery of the U.S. climate mission in Glasgow.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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