Sage grouse plan may restrict ranchers

Federal officials have designed a plan to help protect the sage grouse, and the news may not be good for farmers or ranchers in the tri-state area.

Wildlife workers check the status of a sage grouse at night. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is taking steps through the Bureau of Land Management to help protect the threatened species in southwest North Dakota. – NDGF


Pioneer Publisher & Editor

Posted Sept. 14, 2012

Federal officials have designed a plan to help protect the sage grouse, and the news may not be good for farmers or ranchers in the tri-state area.

In an initial report issued in late August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife advised state and federal land management agencies to act immediately to “stop the bleeding of continuing habitat and population losses” of the sage grouse. The final report is expected this fall or winter.

In addition to the Dakotas and Montana, sage grouses are found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

During a meeting in Bowman last week, two members of the Bureau of Land Management – Tim Zachmeier and Ruth Miller – met with Bowman County Commission Chairman Lynn Brackel and Camie Janikowski of the Bowman-Slope Soil Conservation District office.

The purpose of the meeting was for the BLM to meet with the cooperating agencies to help develop alternatives for the management of sage grouse.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that sage grouse deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act, however other species demanded more immediate attention. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned to the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service to assist in protecting the sage grouse.

Invitations were sent to agencies in the Dakotas and Montana for two primary reasons: expertise and jurisdiction.

According to Miller, county commissioners were selected based on their knowledge of the local economy and the impact of any proposed plans to the local communities.

Before participating, local officials were required to agree to sign a memorandum of understanding not to release the pre-decisional materials discussed at the meeting. Local officials are asked to collect information from local residents to share at future meetings.

Currently, there are four alternatives (plans) being reviewed by the BLM. The particular plans discussed last week were North Dakota specific as BLM officials agreed to rewrite management plans in agreement with Wildlife Services. The alternative management plans discussed would be restricted to BLM surface and federal minerals.

“We have to have a range of alternatives,” said Zachmeier, who is stationed in the Dickinson office. “These are tools in a tool box.”

One plan (Alternative D) suggests season restrictions, including timing and numbers. Alternative C discusses reduction in grazing, including the possible retirement of grazing.

Both Janikowski and Brackel raised objections to the language.

“I’m nervous. My biggest concern is this gives the agency the ability to restrict the grazing of land and the retirement of livestock from that land,” said Brackel moments after Janikowski asked for clarification on the term “retirement of grazing.”

According to Miller, the agency must have a range of proposals. At least one of the proposals currently being discussed includes removing grazing from the primary habitat of the birds. This could lead to the total elimination of grazing from sage grouse nesting areas.

“I would prefer (retirement) not even be on the books,” Brackel followed. “I would rather see grazing with management training.”

Wyoming is the nation’s largest coal-producing state and a leader in natural gas production, according to The Associated Press, but that could change if the sage grouse is placed on the endangered list. The problem is that Wyoming is home to more than 30 million acres of sagebrush. It is also home to the largest surviving sage grouse population.

Wyoming reports indicate that leks – where males gather for competitive mating displays – within a quarter mile of new power lines constructed for coalbed methane development had significantly slower growth rates compared to leks farther away from these lines. The reason listed was raptor predatation.

In another report, it claims there is significant scientific evidence that the BLM should protect sage grouse habitat by establishing a four-mile “No Surface Occupancy” zone around each and every sage grouse lek.

Other regions are facing challenging impacts in the alternative management plans as well. In one region, discussion has focused on the need to bury high capacity transmission (electrical) lines. This was a direct threat to wind power development.

In Oregon, utility poles in sagebrush land were considered a threat to the development of the sage grouse population as raptors and other similar predator birds gained “increases in range of vision, allowing for greater speed and effectiveness in acquiring prey.” A similar story is shared in Utah, except it is the golden eagle that gains a predatory advantage with transmission lines and utility poles.

Another report listed noise, specifically noise from drilling, but included compressor stations and other equipment, as a disturbance to the sage grouse population.

As mentioned earlier, the other regions addressing sage grouse numbers appear further along in the process than the local jurisdiction. The BLM website has comments from other regions posted. The following are some of the concerns shared by the public and posted on the website:

• “The conservation measures you propose will drive many true rangeland stewards off the land and will severely impact other businesses within the western economy. Careful review of the NOI and relevant associated documents reveals that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own analysis demonstrates that the greater sage grouse is not legally qualified for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Yet the BLM has proposed and implemented under their December 2011 Instruction Memorandums Endangered Species Act styled sage grouse conservation measures under the misguided notion that the Act somehow authorizes or even mandates ecosystem conservation prior to a species listing. These unnecessary and legally unsupportable decisions to impose and enforce sage-grouse conservation measures under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act when the greater sage grouse does not currently meet the listing requirements of the Act have and will negatively impact most economic activities across the species range by increasing the regulatory cost and burden to conduct natural resource related activities, both commercial and recreational, thereby significantly impeding or virtually eliminating such activities.”

• “Consider having sage grouse conservation on equal footing with livestock grazing on private allotments. We wish to not lose our grazing allotment if we designate it as sage grouse conservation habitat.”

• “Couple this with grazing cuts and increased fires since 1980 and there you have simple statistical analysis of the three reasons for sage grouse decline.”

• “I’m not advocating past grazing practices, I’m advocating more grazing animal for less time. Yes this means ranchers who turn their livestock out forget about them will have to change or go away. We need to have flexibility within grazing permits to hit invasive species hard then move on.”

• “You should set aside an area where predators can be retaced (sic) and creative grazing system can be developed that will be more intense in some key areas.”

• “There is little emphasis on treating and restoring range-land to bring it back to its full productive potential for sage grouse and all wildlife and livestock. There should be no retirement of Grazing Privileges to achieve this.”

• “There are research projects under way that are documenting that grazing by livestock is done under conditions that are appropriate for that specific area’s needs, the outcome is neutral to positive as far as maintain, manipulating as desired, or improving habitat for grouse in general and even sage-grouse in specific. Any analysis would be incomplete without a thorough update and incorporation of recent research on grazing’s effects and potential benefit in improving habitat needs.”

• “To prevent listing of sage grouse livestock grazing and vegetative management projects and programs must be modified to provide sufficient quality sage grouse habitat.”

• The NTC recommendation “consider retirement of grazing privileges in priority sage grouse habitat areas” is a concern. I believe this will give radical environmental groups a tool to contest BLM and Forest Service allotment renewals. I would encourage you to use “deferment” rather than retirement.

• “Retirement of grazing privileges is not in the interest of securing the nation’s food supply.”

• “If grazing privileges are retired, how will the agencies manage the health of the rangeland? It is common knowledge that semi-arid environments need grazing to keep the plants healthy. This is essential for the sage grouse that depend of these plants.”

• “‘Retirement of grazing privileges in priority sage grouse area.’ NO! May use deferred/rotational grazing. Sage grouse at their most plentiful were co-existing with large grazing animals. You would still have antelope, deer and elk in some places. Fox, Swift fox, skunks and badgers are likely more destructive than cattle or sheep.”

• “This has the potential to be the destruction of the western public land based livestock industry.”

• My concern is that if grazing is restricted unreasonably on BLM or Forest Service lands then grazing permittees and private landowners may sell out to recreational users whose activities may be more detrimental to sage grouse than grazing.”

The greater sage grouse is a large, rounded-winged, spike-tailed, ground-dwelling bird, about two feet tall and weighing from two to seven pounds. Females are a mottled brown, black and white. Males are larger and have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on their chest, which they inflate during their elaborate mating displays carried out in breeding areas known as leks. The birds are found at elevations ranging to 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and feed.

According to the BLM, sage grouse have declined in numbers over the past 100 years because of the loss, degradation and fragmentation of sagebrush habitats essential for their survival. Greater sage grouse now occupy only 56 percent of the habitat that was available to them before the arrival of settlers of European descent. In fact, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar claims the sage grouse has experienced a 90 percent decline in their numbers and a 50 percent decline in their habitat in the past century.

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