BLM sage grouse plans set new precedent for conservation | CraigDailyPress.com

BLM sage grouse plans set new precedent for conservation

The greater sage grouse is the focus of 15 Environmental Impact Statements released Thursday by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, which together comprise a range-wide management plan to protect the species and preclude the need for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

— An effort to protect the greater sage grouse across 11 Western states took a step forward Thursday with the release of 14 Final Environmental Impact Statements from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

Moffat County officials are concerned that the plans could limit energy production and ranching due to the proposed one-mile disturbance restriction around sage grouse mating grounds.

The plans outline regulatory guidelines for land use across more than 100 million acres of federal lands in the West that serve as habitat to the greater sage grouse. BLM has been working on the plans, with input from local, state and federal agencies, for more than three years.

"There were 98 different plans rolled up that went into this process… We are actually releasing a range-wide strategy that covers 10 of the 11 states where we have a lot of the habitat within the federal family to conserve not just the greater sage grouse but the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that is so important," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a press conference Thursday at a historic Wyoming ranch.

In Colorado, sage grouse habitat spans across 10 counties with 75 percent of the state's habitat residing in Moffat County.

The proposed plans are based on three objectives: to minimize new surface disturbance, improve existing sagebrush habitat and reduce the threat of rangeland fire to sagebrush habitat, according to BLM and the Forest Service.

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In Northwest Colorado, "the FEIS's proposed plan would close all areas within one mile around active leks (sage grouse mating grounds) to new fluid mineral leasing," according to BLM. Other priority habitat areas would allow oil and gas development with major restrictions, such as no surface occupancy stipulations.

All existing rights for energy development, rights-of-way, and permitted projects would be honored under the plan, the release said.

Moffat County Commissioners expressed concerns to the BLM about the FEIS during the drafting process regarding limits on energy development due to surface occupancy restrictions, and the amount of surface disturbance caused by the proposed TransWest transmission line through Northwest Colorado.

"It takes all the federal land off the table for other uses, for energy, for ranching, for sheepherders and cattle," Commissioner Chuck Grobe said, due to a cap that limits the amount of surface disturbance to sage grouse habitat to 3 percent of the habitat. It is unclear if the FEIS released Thursday reflected changes to address this concern.

The plans will undergo a 30-day protest period in which cooperating agencies and individuals that provided input in the drafting process, including Moffat County Commissioners, can file protests, along with a concurrent 60-day Governor's Consistency Review.

While the 14 plans are tailored to the specific needs of different states and regions — trying to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach — they also attempt to create a consistent baseline for regulation of sage grouse habitat range-wide.

The approach is getting mixed reviews from state and federal officials, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colorado, fears too much federal oversight of the bird.

"The (plan) will impose further heavy-handed federal restrictions on states despite the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture praising sage grouse preservation efforts already underway at the state and local level," Tipton said in a statement. "These federal plans take steps away from successful local preservation efforts and toward a less effective ESA listing."

Tipton co-sponsored legislation in the House to keep the federal government out of local and state sage grouse preservation.

Gov. John Hickenlooper also believes that state-led efforts are the best approach to protecting the species, but he needs more time to carefully review the plan.

"We're cautiously optimistic about the approach taken by the BLM and USFS," Hickenlooper said in a statement. "While we still have some difficulties with the BLM's approach, we remain committed to keep working through those issues."

The plans will be finalized by late summer before the Sept. 30 listing decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency determined in 2010 that the greater sage grouse warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act due in part to a lack of regulatory mechanisms to ensure the bird's survival and protect its habitat, but it was precluded due to higher priority species.

However, in 2011, the Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying that it should list sage grouse and that it can't defer it to another time.

A settlement occurred stating that by 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a final decision on whether sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species based on research.

The BLM and Forest Service decided to develop the regulatory plans released Thursday in part to address the lack of regulatory mechanisms and hopefully avoid a listing.

"Our goal is to not have the bird be listed," said David Boyd, Public Affairs Specialist for the BLM Northwest Colorado District.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com.

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