State Management Plans Are the Only Path to Successful Sage Grouse Conservation

The House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing to review the success of Western State sage grouse management plans and the need for continued local control over sage grouse management. Western States sage grouse management plans have been the primary driver of improvements to the species range-wide.

[T]he federal government under the Obama administration insisted on managing Greater Sage Grouse recovery with a Washington, D.C., one-size-fits-all approach that fails miserably to address the individual management challenges present in each state. The purpose of today’s hearing is to provide further evidence that state and local control leads to lasting success. States have consistently proven to be masters at caring for their own lands and wildlife, and sage grouse is no different,” Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) said.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that listing the Greater Sage Grouse as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted. Instead, the Obama administration developed an equally-restrictive de facto listing scheme by amending 98 Western resource management plans.

The Obama administration’s de facto sage grouse listing and the 20 year mineral moratorium on ten million acres of land has been one of the greatest threats to the livelihood of western communities. Some of the most stifling consequences of the Obama era regulations were targeted at businesses,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) said. “Thankfully President Trump’s Department of [the] Interior cancelled the massive proposed withdrawal allowing job creators and hardrock miners to get back to work.”

Decades of activist litigation and efforts by the Obama administration to circumvent successful state management plans have been “bad for the West, bad for jobs and bad for sage grouse,” according to Idaho Speaker of the House and fifth generation rancher Scott Bedke.

In the process of placating anti-grazing activists, federal agencies have made the number one threat to the Greater Sage Grouse in Idaho worse. In fact, these federal amendments, if left to stand, will create an explosive wildfire situation throughout the Great Basin,” Bedke added.

In 2017, Bedke’s family ranch lost their entire winter grazing allotment due to overly prescriptive federal land use restrictions. A wildfire, which could have been easily contained by local firefighter, was allowed by federal managers to grow out of control burning tens of thousands of acres of prime sage grouse habitat.

My home state of Colorado has spent more than ten million dollars, set aside 130,000 acres for habitat and is developing a mitigation marketplace all for protecting the sage grouse,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) said.

State management plans have been developed with local stakeholders and experts on the ground for more than a decade to address unique and varying geographic differences within their boundaries.

It should be no surprise that Western States are actively implementing plans within their respective states that are having positive impacts on habitats,” Chairman of the Eureka County Nevada Commissioner, Vice Chair of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Federal Lands Committee and Fourth Generation Cattle Producer J.J. Goicoechea said.

Utah, for example, spends an average of $5 million a year protecting sage grouse, and has seen the state population of sage grouse steadily increase since 1990. The state has been especially successful at mitigating the threat of catastrophic wildfire within sage grouse management areas.

I am here to do more than just share a feel good success story of a program that is working. I am here to protect these programs,” Deputy Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources Darin Bird, in reference to the state’s management strategies, stressed.  

Similarly, in Montana, male sage grouse are up 153% compared to 2014 numbers due to the investment of almost $8 million in conservation funds in 2016 to restore over 1,000 acres of critical sage grouse habitat.

Click here to view full witness testimony. 

Zinke Signs New Sage Grouse Order

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, late yesterday, signed a Secretarial Order 3353 to improve sage-grouse conservation and strengthen communication and collaboration between state and federal governments. Together, the Federal government and states will work to conserve and protect sage-grouse and its habitat while also ensuring conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities.

In signing Secretarial Order 3353, Secretary Zinke established an internal review team that will evaluate both Federal sage-grouse plans and state plans and programs to ensure they are complementary. As the team explores possible plan modifications, it will also consider local economic growth and job creation.

“While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor,” said Secretary Zinke. “State agencies are at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations, and we need to make sure they are being heard on this issue. As we move forward with implementation of our strategy for sage-grouse conservation, we want to make sure that we do so first and foremost in consultation with state and local governments, and in a manner that allows both wildlife and local economies to thrive. There are a lot of innovative ideas out there. I don’t want to take anything off the table when we talk about a plan.”

In September 2015, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture finalized the greater sage-grouse plans, which included amendments and revisions to 98 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service land use plans in 11 Western states. The plans were cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a key reason for its decision that the greater sage-grouse did not merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Protection under the act could potentially stifle economic development across large areas of the American West where more than half of sage-grouse habitat is on public lands managed by the BLM and the Forest Service.

The Secretary has asked this interagency team of experts from the BLM, FWS, and U.S. Geological Survey to focus on addressing the principal threats to rangeland health and sage-grouse habitat—invasive grasses and wildland fire. The team will also consider creative approaches and ideas, including a captive breeding program, setting population targets by state, and opportunities to improve state involvement.

The team will examine the plans in light of policies set forth in Secretarial Order 3349, American Energy Independence. To this end, the team will be asked to identify plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on the potential for energy and other development on public lands.

This Secretarial Order follows through on statements Secretary Zinke made during his confirmation hearing, when he stated that he understands each state has different needs and issues and committed to working with them and local communities. He concluded that together the Federal government, states and western communities will get this job done.

Trump administration orders review of landmark sage grouse plan

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – The Trump administration has ordered a review of sweeping federal land-use restrictions adopted in 2015 to safeguard the greater sage grouse, a once-ubiquitous prairie bird whose fate is tied to the health of America’s vast but vanishing Western grasslands.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the 60-day review of sage grouse conservation rules in a Wednesday conference call with reporters, saying Western governors have complained that federal implementation of the plan has been alternately “heavy-handed” and inconsistent.

Environmental groups immediately protested the move, saying it might lead to unraveling a complex and delicately balanced strategy that took federal agencies years to negotiate with state and local governments, scientists, ranchers and other private interests.

The Obama administration launched the plan in September 2015 as an alternative to listing the ground-dwelling bird under the Endangered Species Act, a move that would potentially have entailed even tougher habitat protections.

Zinke insisted he was seeking to perfect, not dismantle, sage grouse conservation measures, while allowing greater innovation and “flexibility” by individual states on “such things as jobs and energy development.”

He said greater focus might be placed on factors other than strict habitat protection, such as predator, disease and wildfire control. Zinke also said some states have suggested the overall strategy place more emphasis on grouse population numbers than on habitat size.

Two Western governors, Democrat John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Matthew Mead of Wyoming, who co-chair a federal-state sage grouse task force, contradicted such a shift in a letter to Zinke last month.

“We understand that you are considering … moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states. We are concerned that this is not the right decision,” they wrote in the May 26 letter.

The plight of the grouse, a key indicator species for America’s dwindling sagebrush ecosystem, has pitted conservation groups against oil and gas drilling, wind farms and cattle grazing in one of the biggest industry-versus-nature conflicts in decades.

The landmark measures implemented 21 months ago were aimed at saving the grouse while allowing activities such as energy development, mining and ranching to co-exist with the chicken-sized prairie fowl.

The greater sage grouse, known for its elaborate mating rituals, once ranged by the millions across a broad expanse of the western United States and Canada. They are now believed to number between 200,000 and 500,000 birds across 11 Western states and southern Alberta.

Besides a patchwork of conservation programs for state and private lands representing 45 percent of sage grouse habitat, the new strategy includes a set of tiered limits on commercial development inside 67 million acres (27 million hectares) of designated habitat on federal land.

Unlike many Western land-use battles of the past, sage grouse conservation drew wide support from commercial interests. Many ranchers, in particular, found common cause with efforts to protect the rangelands on which their livestock depend, citing the axiom: “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”

 

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

Sens. Paul, Heller Reintroduce the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act

U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Dean Heller (R-NV) reintroduced the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act to restore power to states to manage endangered and threatened species found only within their borders. Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) has introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House.  

The bill would also require congressional approval before a species could be listed as endangered or threatened, better protect individual private property rights, and enable states such as Kentucky to address the threats black vultures pose to livestock and Nevada to address the threats ravens pose to sage grouse populations. 

“We can better protect endangered species by empowering state leaders to implement a strategy more tailored to their specific circumstances,” said Sen. Paul. “Instead of continuing Washington’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to regulation, this bill puts local needs first and guards against bureaucratic overreach.” 

“Like all Nevadans, I know how important it is that we be good stewards of wildlife and their habitats,” said Sen. Heller. “That’s why I’ve been working with Governor Sandoval and the Nevada delegation to prevent the listing of the sage grouse in order to protect both the bird and Nevada’s economy. Nevadans – not Washington bureaucrats – know how to best protect the sage grouse, and the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act affirms that.” 

You can find a one-page summary of the bill HERE, and you can read it in its entirety HERE.

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