From what I can tell, sage grouse is the hot word across much of the Western front of the Rockies these days.
In early November the Bureau of Land Management released draft revisions for land-use plans (LUPs) and environmental impact statements that affect habitat for greater sage grouse across Idaho and southwest Montana. Government officials in these states along with the other nine states involved are now rushing to establish their own management plans.
The grouse is known for its distinctive mating dance and can found in the sagebrush-covered rangelands of 11 Western states including Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
In 2010, US Fish and Wildlife decided the greater sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the listing was held off by the need to address other threatened species first. The agency has until September 2015 to determine whether to list sage grouse as endangered.
To assist in this conservation effort, BLM has been reworking management plans as a means to avoid listing of the bird, with hopes that more proactive management could help to create healthier populations of sage grouse across the affected areas. The recent draft revisions released are part of this process and will be open to public comment for 90 days from Nov. 1.
These proposed changes to LUPs and ESAs should be of concern to those in the ranching community since much of the public lands that will be affected include grazing allotments used for seasonal grazing of livestock herds. The BLM and US Forest Service currently manage 30.1 million acres in Idaho and Montana, with about 11.2 million acres of this land considered as greater sage grouse habitat.
The revised plans call for a balance of conservation and restoration efforts while still allowing certain ongoing land uses programs to continue. The Idaho and Montana plans in particular follow recommendations from a task force set up by Idaho governor, Butch Otter. Otter's task force recommends leaving land use plans in place for Montana. A more stringent approach for Idaho includes designating three levels of sage grouse habitat area and restricting land use on core habitat areas.
While the draft revisions are currently in favor of livestock grazing in most situations, that does not mean that the ranching community is out the water on the chance of losing grazing rights. Many environmental groups, like Western Watershed and WildEarth Guardians, are already expressing their disgust with the proposed revisions because of the lack and/or refusal to reduce livestock grazing.
I have heard very little on this topic from the ranching community up until this point and that concerns me. I've discussed in the past other instances where livestock grazing and activist intervention have come to loggerheads and I still feel that we are in need of a critical paradigm shift on the situation at hand if we are going to continue to utilize these public lands for uses like livestock grazing.
Conservation of greater sage grouse and its habitat are important. So are livestock grazing and the other land uses that generate economic benefits for the communities associated with them. A balance and consideration for the whole, not just the parts, needs to be sought out.
Listing of sage grouse on the Endangered Species List would have detrimental effects on the ranching industry, eliminating grazing on much of the 11.2 million acres considered sage grouse habitat across Montana and Idaho. Having a hand in shaping the land use plan for these affected areas may help to prevent this from happening.
In the meantime, the ranching community needs to speak out on this issue and participate in the public comment period to help guarantee that an important part of their livelihood, seasonal livestock grazing on public lands, is able to continue into the future alongside the restoration and regeneration of healthy sage grouse populations.
The Draft Idaho and Southwestern Montana Sub-Regional Greater Sage-Grouse LUP amendment/EIS is available at: http://www.blm.gov/id/st/en/prog/nepa_register/sage-grouse_rmp_revision.html.
General comments or questions should be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the Montana-specific draft LUPs and ESAs and to comment, please visit Montana Fish and Wildlife's website here.