Miles City BLM office unveils management plan

2013-03-10T00:00:00Z 2013-03-11T07:11:12Z Miles City BLM office unveils management planBRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

It’s an alphabet soup of acronyms plus charts, graphs and densely worded proposals. It's 1,800 pages long.

The document released by the Bureau of Land Management’s Miles City Field Office on Friday will help guide management of 2.7 million surface acres and 11 million mineral acres in Eastern Montana, possibly for two decades.

“It’s not for wimps,” said Todd Yeager, Miles City field manager. “They are heavy topics to handle.”

The title of the document -- the Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement – may seem almost as long as the eight years it took to develop. Within the plan is the BLM’s recommended alternative for how to manage the area, a guiding document for lands in 17 counties that hasn’t been updated for some areas since 1985.

The document is only a draft, the public will have until June to suggest changes before the plan is finalized.

Here’s a partial breakdown on what can be found in the document under the BLM’s suggested alternative:

Grazing

Probably the largest concern for southeastern Montana landowners is the BLM’s decision to allow grazing on all but about 3,000 acres of its land.

The Miles City Field Office already administers 1,776 grazing allotments comprising 2,736,673 public acres and 546,570 public animal unit months. Cattle are the most common livestock (1,728 allotments), followed by sheep (132), horses (101), bison (3) and burros (1).

Yeager said 98 percent of the area’s grazing allotments meet the standards for rangeland health. The other 2 percent are under review.

Sage grouse

The BLM would allow oil-and-gas development with conditions on the estimated 2.5 million acres of its sage grouse habitat.

“We’ve really broken up how we are proposing to manage sage grouse habitat,” Yeager said. “We’re looking at delineating habitats into three different classifications and surface disturbance would be managed differently in each area.”

The BLM noted that “expanding energy development in western North America poses a major new challenge for sage-grouse conservation,” including “habitat loss, fragmentation, and deterioration resulting from factors including the spread of invasive species, infrastructure development … wildfire, conversion of sagebrush habitats to nonnative species or agriculture, and conifer invasion.”

Three areas would be established specifically as sage grouse priority areas: North Garfield (171,000 acres), North Rosebud (173,000 acres) and Carter (448,000 acres). Four areas would be designated sage grouse habitat restoration areas: Decker area (8,300 acres), Cedar Creek (29,000 acres), South Carter (64,000 acres) and a source population area (8,000 acres). Development in these areas would be restricted to maintain sage grouse habitat.

The BLM denied a request by sportsmen’s groups to protect an area next to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge from oil-and-gas development to protect sage grouse, saying the potential for development in the area was already low.

Protected areas

The BLM would add six new areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC), four that are historic battlefields from the Indian Wars and two that contain dinosaur bones.

The field office already oversees 16 ACECs. One – the Howrey Island ACEC – would be removed. It was initially created to protect a bald eagle nesting area when the bird was listed as an endangered species. It will now be managed as a special recreation management area, places that are more intensively managed for recreation.

Some of the existing ACECs and their size include: Ash Creek Divide (7,921 acres), Bug Creek (3,837 acres), Hell Creek (19,373 acres), and Sand Arroyo (9,052 acres) paleontological ACECs; Big Sheep Mountain (363 acres), Hoe (147 acres), Jordan Bison Kill ACEC (160 acres), Powder River Depot (1,401 acres), Seline (80 acres), cultural ACECs; piping plover (15 acres) and black-footed ferret (11,221 acres) wildlife ACECs; Finger Buttes (1,520 acres) scenic ACEC; and Smoky Butte (80 acres) geological ACEC.

The BLM identified 5,236 acres of the Devil’s Creek Common area as having wilderness characteristics.

The entire planning area contains seven wilderness study areas covering more than 97,000 acres. Those study areas will continue to be managed for wilderness characteristics. Motorized use on already established routes can continue as long as the resource is not impaired for wilderness suitability.

A Montana Wilderness Association representative said his group would be making a case for consideration of other BLM areas for wilderness characteristics, including Buck Creek, portions of the Powder River Valley and Wrangler Creek.

Recreation areas

Right now, the Miles City Field Office has three special recreation management areas (SRMAs) totaling 16,500 acres. Under the preferred alternative that would be expanded to 11 SRMAs covering 43,000 acres.

New areas include: Powder River Depot (162 acres), Calypso (71 acres), Lewis and Clark Trail (14,499 acres), Howrey Island (592 acres), Matthews (91 acres), Dean S. Reservoir (162 acres), Pumpkin Creek Ranch (19,435 acres), Glendive Short Pine (2,272 acres), Terry (110 acres), Strawberry Hill (4,248 acres), and Moorhead (13 acres).

Off-highway vehicle use would be open on 2,000 acres; limited on 2.8 million acres; and closed on 2,800 acres. But that’s simply a reflection of the creation of new ACECs, said the BLM’s Shane Findlay. After the plan is finished, the agency will begin travel management planning for the field office.

To comment

Once it is finalized, the plan can be amended to meet changing conditions.

The draft document can be viewed on the Internet at http://blm.gov/0ykd. A limited number of paper copies of the draft are available from BLM’s Miles City Field Office, 111 Garryowen Road.

Open houses have been scheduled in May in eight communities at which the public can provide comments. Or comments can be sent by email to: BLM_MT_MCFO_RMP@blm.gov; by fax to: 406-233-3650; by mail to: "MCFO RMP Comments", 111 Garryowen Road, Miles City, MT 59301; or delivered to the Miles City office. The comment period extends to June 5.

For more information, contact planning specialist Mary Bloom at 406-233-2800.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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