Conservation groups critical of BLM's new sage grouse plan

2011-12-28T17:00:00Z 2011-12-29T08:25:03Z Conservation groups critical of BLM's new sage grouse planBy MARTIN KIDSTON Gazette Wyoming Bureau The Billings Gazette
December 28, 2011 5:00 pm  • 

CODY, Wyo. — Conservation groups across the West expressed disappointment Wednesday in a federal document that will guide the management of sage grouse habitat over the next several years.

The Bureau of Land Management's new Instruction Memorandum, released Tuesday, recommends policies needed to mitigate the threats to sage-grouse habitat until long-term protection measures are developed.

But conservationists and biologists on Wednesday called the interim plan flawed, saying that while it encourages stronger protections, it fails to establish the policies needed to safeguard grouse from the threats the bird faces across its range.

"In cases where BLM officials want to ignore the welfare of sage grouse and ram through projects that are detrimental, there will be little in the new policy to stop them," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "The interim policy is written with such loose language that BLM officials will have the latitude to do anything they want — or nothing at all — to protect the grouse."

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the threats that sage grouse face across its range. Among them, the agency named fragmentation from invasive plants, energy development, urbanization and agricultural development.

In August, the BLM followed by forming a national technical team of sage grouse experts to identify standards needed to protect the bird from the listed threats.

The team consisted of 23 biologists from eight Western states and four agencies, including the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Among its recommendations, the team suggested a need to restore sage grouse priority areas, where birds breed and rear their broods.

It also recommended that no new oil and gas permits be issued in core sage grouse areas until a long-term plan is developed, and that BLM land managers modify or maintain grazing strategies on public lands to meet sage grouse habitat requirements.

While the recommendations were made by what Molvar called an "all-star team" of federal biologists, he said their advice is largely missing from the BLM's new plan.

"The BLM got a very strong consensus on what sage grouse need according to the science," Molvar said. "But that has been watered down and watered down by various political interests."

The BLM state land office in Wyoming said Wednesday that it was too soon to comment on the new federal document. The agency's grouse experts were off for the holidays.

"It's a national policy," Beverly Gorny, spokesperson for the Wyoming BLM in Cheyenne, said of the plan. "We just received it yesterday ourselves. We're not commenting on it at this time."

Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project based in Hailey, Idaho, also expressed disappointment Wednesday with the BLM's new plan.

Marvel said the document fails to establish any quantifiable objectives to help guide land managers, particularly in the way of livestock grazing.

"Nowhere in here does it provide any direction other than giving these very general ideas to evaluate certain activities," Marvel said. "The BLM is missing in action here, and they're failing in their job to protect this species from further decline."

Marvel believes the plan is full of generalities and lacks guidance or enforcement.

For grazing, he cited as an example, the plan directs land managers to plan livestock grazing and range improvement projects "in a way that maintains or improves greater sage grouse and its habitat."

"OK, so how do you do that?" he asked. "Does that mean every BLM manager gets to decide what that means? That's a complete waste of time. The needs of sage grouse are effectively the same throughout its range."

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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