USFS proposes new sage grouse plan

Feds seek to cede more control to locals; critics say plan will cause ‘irreparable harm’

A sage grouse shows off its unique appearance. Climate change, heavy industry and grazing have all contributed to a decrease in sage grouse habitat and population numbers – perhaps by as much as 90 percent over the past 120 years. A new plan that would replace a plan that was approved four years ago seeks to give greater control of conservation efforts to locals. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing changes to how it manages the greater sage grouse populations in Utah and four other states – Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming – in an effort to provide “greater flexibility and local control of conservation and management actions related to sage grouse,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Western Watersheds Project environmental organization was critical of the plan, saying it “weakens regulations, hamstrings enforceability, ignores the science, and the sage-grouse be damned.”

The overarching goal of the plan, according to the Forest Service, is to ensure Forest Service lands continue to host a mix of uses while conserving sage grouse habitat. Adding more flexibility to locals, according to the plan, would help ensure grazers would “maintain their livelihood” while conserving habitat. On that note, the plan also calls for a shift away from “rigid, prescriptive standards to commonsense, locally driven strategies.”

The plan also simplifies the rules by aligning state and federal conservation standards “so ranchers and other land users have one set of standards instead of dealing with multiple, complex layers of restrictions.” Mitigation options are also aligned with state-based systems with the idea of ensuring no net loss of habitat, abandoning the current “one-size-fits-all strategy.”

Finally, while the plan explicitly states that one goal is to eliminate any habitat loss, it removes the “unreasonable standard” that every action increase conservation. Doing so, according to the plan, “enables local stakeholders to determine what strategies to implement where and how, while still conserving sage grouse habitat.”

“The Forest Service continues to promote our multiple-use mission while ensuring conservation of greater sage grouse habitat,” Agriculture Department Sonny Perdue said. “We are sharing the stewardship of the lands with western state governors – their extensive participation throughout this process was the key to landscape-scale conservation that aligns our policies and practices across local, state and federal jurisdictions.”

The decision follows a similar plan the Bureau of Land Management announced earlier this summer. Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said the Forest Service has not yet released the actual plan, calling into question why the public would be “left in the dark” about how the Forest Service will realize its goal, “despite the bird’s continuing downward spiral in population numbers and increasing threats to its habitats on public lands.”

“The sage-grouse plans of 2015 were supposed to apply just enough protection that no Endangered Species Act protection would be needed,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “With every change the Trump administration makes, those delusions of the plan’s adequacy fade away.”

For Molvar, the plan is no more than a push to do the president’s bidding. “These types of conservation rollbacks are in part a response to the president’s executive order issued last Dec. 27, demanding an end to multiple use management of the national forests in favor of resource extraction,” said Molvar. “Citizens need to speak out for their public lands and endangered wildlife like sage grouse before these proposed changes cause irreparable harm.”

The Forest Service published the final environmental impact statement in the Federal Register, and the objection period will last 60 days from the date of the publication of the notice of availability. After considering objections, the Forest Service intends to continue the planning process by issuing a final decision document regarding the revised plan amendments in the fall.

Western Watersheds’ Molvar told The Times-Independent his group will continue to monitor the Forest Service plan. In the meantime, the organization has already filed a lawsuit against the BLM and its sage grouse plan in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho.

“This is all about Trump’s plan to weaken the sage grouse plan,” he said. “We’re carefully monitoring.” He said the sage grouse, which has shrunk in population by an estimated 90 percent over the past 100 years, is dying off by human-caused “habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.” He blamed grazing, oil and gas exploration, the installation of transmission lines, road building and other activities for the loss of habitat.

“If we keep doing the same things we will continue to head sage grouse towards extinction,” he said. And while he blames the Trump administration, he said the plan that was completed in 2015 during the Obama administration also is inadequate. “The Obama plan improved [sage grouse policy] but not enough to meet the needs of sage grouse.”