Letters From the West

BLM prepares for sage grouse hearings on its plan and Otter’s

Mating ritual: A male sage grouse puffs his chest and struts in a lek. the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by 2015 whether to list the desert bird as a threatened species Provided by USGS/Matt T. Lee

Mating ritual: A male sage grouse puffs his chest and struts in a lek. the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by 2015 whether to list the desert bird as a threatened species
Provided by USGS/Matt T. Lee

Beginning Monday in Murphy, the Bureau of Land Management is holding a series of public meetings on its sage grouse planning effort.

BLM chose “co-preferred” alternatives for a sage grouse conservation plan to amend 21 resource management plans and eight Forest Service land use plans over 10 million acres of public land in Idaho and Montana. One of the two alternatives was the Idaho sage grouse plan written by a team Idaho Gov. Butch Otter created.

The plans are designed to help keep the sage grouse from becoming an endangered species, a decision that could limit livestock grazing, energy development and growth across the West. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has set 2015 as the deadline for the federal agency to deliver sage grouse plans that cover the entire region, dictating decisions this coming spring.

Hearings are planned across southern Idaho, finishing up Jan. 15 in Boise.
Otter’s sage grouse plan was designed to garner wide support so that Idaho can go into Winmill’s court supporting the federal government with key environmental groups on board. That approach worked when both Winmill and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals backed Idaho’s alternative roadless plan in 2012.

The Idaho and BLM plans have much in common. Both have triggers that require more limits and conservation measures if sage grouse habitat is destroyed by fire or if the number of birds plummets. Both ban development in the highest-quality habitat.

Idaho places 4.9 million acres in that category, and allows some exceptions; the BLM labels 7 million acres as the most restrictive in a different arrangement. The Idaho plan takes a different approach on grazing decisions.

I expect Otter to talk about sage grouse in his State of the State address Monday. But Idaho is waiting to hear what Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and acting BLM Director Neil Kornze are going to do.

Kornze’s appointment as BLM director is being held up in the Senate by Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, so all three Obama administration officials know the political ramification of their decisions. So far, they have followed Otter’s lead as he has presented serious proposals for aiding the birds on public land.

The big question now is what the other 10 states will do. Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore is meeting with his counterparts across the West to talk about this issue today.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West