Letters From the West

Interior’s Jewell visits the West as sage grouse crunch time approaches

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Boise in 2013.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Boise in 2013.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was in Colorado Tuesday to tout private conservation efforts as her agency and the states come down to the wire in developing plans to prevent the listing of sage grouse as a threatened species.

Jewel and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and Bureau of Land Management Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze joined Jewell and Hickenlooper for a tour of the Bord Gulch Ranch near Craig.

They also met with local landowners and officials to talk about the issue that is critical to rural development across 11 western states. Jewell was there to show she recognized the value of private conservation and the state plans governors like Hickenlooper and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter have developed.

Working with federal and state agencies, Bord Gulch Ranch Manager Ray Owens has built water projects, fencing, and other improvements to improve sage grouse habitat conditions. It’s the same kind of work some ranchers in Idaho are doing

“We have an opportunity to work together to develop and execute a conservation strategy, rooted in partnerships, that effectively addresses the threats to the sage grouse.”
Jewell said in a press release.

Two years ago, then-Secretary Ken Salazar and western governors formed the Sage Grouse Task Force to develop a cooperative approach to conserving the species across the West. It has not been easy.

Reconciling each state’s approach is a challenge for the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will make the decision whether to list in 2015. In states like Colorado and Utah there is considerable private lands in sage grouse habitat.

Oil and gas development is also a big issue there and in Wyoming. Idaho has little energy development and most of its sage grouse habitat is on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

That’s why BLM officials and Otter are feverishly trying to come together on a final plan, picking from the agency’s preferred alternative and Idaho’s plan. Much of the differences now come down to the map of what’s protected and how development might be allowed in some areas.

The BLM just completed a series of hearings across the state and crunch time is starting. They and state officials have to have their plans worked out by this spring.

Ultimately, Jewell, who has both the BLM and Fish and Wildlife under her leadership, is going to have to decide if the states and her own people have done enough to protect the bird that is the canary in the coal mine for the sagebrush sea ecosystem. Essentially it’s a decision about whether she thinks there are enough stewards like the ranch manager Owens to protect the bird without listing.

“He represents the spirit of partnership that can be replicated across the West as we develop landscape-level strategies to lessen the threats to the sage grouse and conserve its habitat,” Jewell said.

And if she and her agency are satisfied they will have to convince U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill that they acted correctly.

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.

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