Letters From the West

Fish and Wildlife Service praises Otter sage grouse strategy

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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service praised Idaho’s sage grouse conservation strategy, developed by a task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter.

Brian Kelly, Fish and Wildlife’s Idaho state supervisor, stopped short of offering “concurrence” with the plan Otter hopes will give the state more flexibility while preventing listing of the desert bird. But Kelly said the foundation of the strategy and most of its elements “are solid, and are grounded in scientific concepts and approaches important to both the Service and the Department of Interior.

“While there is much about the current draft the Service supports; there remain elements that need refinement, clarification, or need to be incorporated into the strategy for the Service to conclude the entire strategy is consistent with Service’s (objectives,)” Kelly wrote in a letter April 10 to Otter.

The Otter proposal designated millions of acres across southern Idaho as a Sage Grouse Management Area, with three zones. In the 5.5 million acres of “core habitat,” where 73 percent of the active leks or breeding grounds are found, big infrastructure projects would be prohibited with few exceptions. The Service said it likes the idea but wants more details on how the exceptions will be allowed and how mitigation would be done to offset their impacts.

“Important habitat, ” where 22 percent of the sage grouse leks are found, is slightly less restrictive. Fish and Wildlife liked the zoning and how a significant drop in the sage grouse population or habitat due to a fire would change the zone to the highest restrictions.

The Bureau of Land Management has been criticized by Idaho politicians including Sen. Jim Risch because of recent decisions it has made reducing grazing on public lands it manages in Owyhee County. Risch and others have pointed to Kelly and the Fish and Wildlife Service as the model for the approach they would prefer.

“The BLM and the Service have different legal authorities and policy requirements,” Kelly wrote. “As such, any ‘concurrence’ we may offer on elements of the Strategy should not be construed … as being implementable by the BLM. This is a determination the BLM must make.”

Kelly said the Service like that the grazing section still requires that ranchers meet the Idaho Rangeland Health Standards. It also liked the regulation of improper grazing as a threat to sage grouse when permits have not yet been analyzed by the BLM, as an alternative to requiring all individual permits be conditioned to meet the standards by the time the Service makes its listing decision in 2015.

That’s “a goal that is likely not achievable,” Kelly said.

“The Service supports the Livestock Grazing Element in the interim as long as no triggers have been tripped within the conservation area,” he wrote.

Tom Perry, Otter’s chief counsel who heads the Task Force that wrote the strategy, saw Kelly’s letter as a positive step.

“Governor Otter will continue the collaborative dialogue with his Task Force and our federal partners to resolve these remaining issues.,” Perry said. “Overall, the Service’s response provides a solid road map for Governor Otter and the state to preclude the need to list the species while maintaining multiple land use.”

Western Watersheds Project, the anti-grazing group whose lawsuits have driven much of the legal pressure on sage grouse listing and grazing cutbacks see both Otter’s strategy and Kelly’s letter as political documents.

“The plan specifically ignores fence, water developments… and avoids any passive restoration actions to allow the land to heal,” said Katie Fite, a biologist with Western Watersheds. “It ignores that the presence of livestock in the landscape promotes mesopredators, disturbs birds on nests, and cows (that) trample and may even eat eggs.”

Fite said the plan does nothing to prevent new transmission lines or energy projects, and does not or deal with grazing and the weeds and other factors it promotes.

“It is a substance-less plan to do nothing but spin wheels and tweak a few small things while sage grouse habitat dies a death by a thousand cuts,” she said.

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