NWF-CWF comments re greater sage grouse draft EIS

December 4, 2013

NWF-CWF comment letter, December 2, 2013, on the BLM's greater sage grouse draft environmental impact statement appears below. 

December 2, 2013
 
Delivered via electronic (blm_co_nw_sage_grouse@blm.gov) and regular mail
 
BLM-Greater Sage Grouse EIS
2815 H Road
Grand Junction, Colorado 81506
 
Re:       Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Northwest Colorado District
 
To Whom It May Concern:
 
These comments are submitted on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Colorado Wildlife Federation (CWF). As an organization, NWF represents the power and commitment of four million members and supporters joined by affiliated organizations in 48 states and territories and the District of Columbia. NWF and its affiliates have a long history of constructive involvement in wildlife, habitat, and public lands management issues. As an advocate for wildlife, NWF has been actively engaged in the conservation of Greater sage-grouse at the local, state, and national level. NWF’s members recreate on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) that are the subject of the land use planning and management decisions under consideration. NWF’s members also use and enjoy the wildlife supported by these federal lands.
The Colorado Wildlife Federation is Colorado’s oldest statewide wildlife conservation organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose members consist of hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts. CWF’s mission is to promote the conservation, sound management, and sustainable use and enjoyment of Colorado’s wildlife and habitat through education and advocacy. CWF understands that wildlife habitat is critical to conserving Colorado’s unique wildlife, hunting and fishing heritage, and wildlife viewing opportunities. These wildlife-related recreation pursuits enrich the well-being of residents and visitors and form a substantial segment of Colorado’s economy. CWF’s members hunt, fish, and recreate on federal lands in Colorado that will be impacted by land use planning and management decisions intended to conserve Greater sage-grouse.
 
I.            Introduction
 
The Greater sage-grouse is an iconic species of the Intermountain West and northern Great Plains. Over the last 100 years, both the population and range of the species have contracted significantly and the species has been found warranted for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. In large part, the decline of the species mirrors the steady destruction and deterioration of sage-grouse habitat. The sage-steppe ecosystem is considered one of the most imperiled in North America and faces many severe threats, including increased pressures from oil and gas development, invasive species, wind and renewable energy development and livestock grazing/agricultural conversion. The direct loss, fragmentation, and degradation of its habitat must be addressed now or further declines in sage-grouse population and range will certainly occur. 
 
The disappearance of Greater sage-grouse habitat and the decline of Greater sage-grouse populations indicate the need to implement more effective conservation immediately. While federal land management agencies and state wildlife agencies have engaged in efforts to preserve Greater sage-grouse, the species is still in decline, demonstrating that past and current efforts are inadequate. As the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has indicated, there is an urgent need to develop and implement range-wide, science-based conservation measures before the Greater sage-grouse reaches the brink of extinction.
 
BLM and USFS play a crucial role in conserving Greater sage-grouse. Because the majority of remaining Greater sage-grouse habitat overlaps with land managed by BLM and USFS,[1] the long-term survival of the species rests largely on management prescriptions established by these agencies. Development pressure is expected to increase on these lands. In addition, “development on private lands, which is not subject to mitigation, will focus greater needs for conservation of sage-grouse and sagebrush on public lands.”[2] Accordingly, the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, including management prescriptions set forth in the Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and revisions and amendments to Resource Management Plans (RMPs) and Land and Resource Management Plan (LMPs), will determine whether negative trends in Greater sage-grouse populations can be reversed.
 
The guiding principle of the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy must be to maintain and increase the abundance and distribution of Greater sage-grouse throughout the planning area. This planning effort will require the development of policies and strategies to conserve, enhance, and restore the sagebrush ecosystem across the species’s range. For that reason, NWF and CWF are disappointed to see the agencies put forth as their “Preferred Alternative” (Alternative D) in the draft environmental impact statement for amending their land use management plans in northwest Colorado a strategy that continues to rely on measures that have proven ineffective in preventing the decline of Greater sage-grouse. The continued reliance on some management “prescriptions” that are not supported by current science and others which are not really prescriptive but merely suggestions that can be waived[3] will not be sufficient to ensure that sage-grouse are restored and that no further action by USFWS will be required.
 
In its scoping comments on the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy submitted on March 12th of this year, NWF and five of its state affiliates, California Planning and Conservation League, Colorado Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Montana Wildlife Federation, Nevada Wildlife Federation, and Wyoming Wildlife Federation, identified fifteen components of effective management strategies for sage-grouse conservation (see discussion below). None of the alternatives identified in the Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Northwest Colorado District (NWCO DEIS) contains all of these recommendations. NWF and CWF, therefore, urge the agencies to adopt a final resource management plan amendment (RMPA) that incorporates appropriate elements of Alternatives B and C in the NWCO DEIS.
 
II.            Mitigation and Best Management Practices
 
NWF and CWF support the approach identified in all of the action alternatives under consideration in the NWCO DEIS of delineating “core” or “priority” habitats that must be permanently protected from both direct and indirect impacts of development. The agencies own National Technical Team (NTT) has defined priority habitat as “areas that have the highest conservation value to maintaining or increasing sageâ��grouse populations.”[4]â��rearing, winter concentration areas, and migration or connectivity corridors.[5] The remaining sage-grouse habitat, or general sage-grouse habitat, includes occupied seasonal or year-round habitat outside of priority habitat. Priority habitat should be set-aside from development or protected via stringent management protections that meet the goal of maintaining and enhancing populations in these areas. These protected areas should be large enough to stabilize populations in the short term and enhance populations over the long term.[6] Priority habitat should also include small or isolated populations, such as those along the periphery of the Greater sage-grouse’s range. These priority areas should include breeding, late brood
Some general habitat must also be conserved if sage-grouse are to be restored to long-term viability. The goal for managing general habitat is to support habitat connectivity and increase sage-grouse populations within and outside of the other sage-grouse habitat designations.
Sage-grouse conservation must address the most current science on sage-grouse transitional habitat, such as migration or connectivity corridors necessary for sage-grouse to travel through the landscape to vital seasonal habitat. Sage-grouse movement patterns are poorly understood,[7]BLM in December, 2011[8] does little to provide guidelines for the preservation or inventory of important sage-grouse transition habitat and many state-level planning efforts have not adequately incorporated transitional habitat into conservation efforts. However, it is clear that migration corridors and habitat connectivity (including movement across jurisdictional boundaries) will play an essential role in successful conservation strategies. The agencies should create management policies that will protect areas that may likely serve as transitional habitat due to the proximity of these areas to highly productive habitat and lek sites. and as such transitional habitat is not adequately recognized and incorporated into current sage-grouse conservation and management. For instance, the interim guidance released by
 
Restoration habitat is degraded or fragmented habitat that may not be currently occupied by sage-grouse but might support the species if restored. Land managers should target passive and active habitat restoration efforts in these areas to extend current sage-grouse range and mitigate for future loss of priority habitat.[9]
 
As the agencies establish management guidelines for sage-grouse habitat, they should apply the BLM’s habitat mitigation policy, codified at 43 C.F.R. § 1508.20. This policy lists habitat mitigation actions in descending order of preference: avoidance, minimization, rectification, reduction, and compensation. As the agencies engage in the difficult act of balancing development with conservation of sage-grouse and other sagebrush obligate species, they must keep in mind this mitigation hierarchy and consider “avoidance” the foremost objective, especially in sage-grouse priority habitat. BLM and USFS should strongly consider closing large areas in important sage-grouse habitat to anthropogenic disturbance. In the event that development occurs in sage-grouse habitat, the agencies are legally required to apply mitigation to lessen impacts on the species.
 
In addition, BLM now has guidance on regional or landscape-level mitigation.[10]BLM formally acknowledges that it can condition approval of uses on sufficient off-site mitigation and provides detailed standards for designing appropriate mitigation. The final RMPA should identify specific off-site mitigation measures to offset development impacts that cannot be mitigated within a project area. In this guidance,
 
Our recommendations for management policies in sage-grouse habitat are as follows:
 
·        Fully protect priority habitat from large-scale disturbances (e.g., transmission lines, oil and gas wells, graded roads etc.), as well as any type of development that affects population distribution and abundance at any level.
·        Direct development to areas with low conflicts with greater sage-grouse conservation
·        Direct new development to pre-disturbed areas.
·        If priority habitat cannot be fully protected from energy development due to valid existing rights, minimize impacts by limiting permitted disturbances to one per section with no more than 3% surface disturbance.[11]
·        Ensure that small scale disturbances do not cumulatively disturb more than 3% of each priority area.
·        Agencies should not issue new leases or right-of-way (ROW) permits within any priority area that is not currently subject to valid existing rights.
·        Increase and enhance the amount of protected priority habitat by aggressively pursuing available tools, including fluid mineral lease retirements, voluntary grazing permit retirement (where beneficial), mineral withdrawal, coal unsuitability findings, and mineral claim buyouts. 
·        In priority habitat, establish goals for enhancing habitat and building sage-grouse populations. In these identified areas, the agencies should work to reduce overall road densities, remove fences and enhance nesting cover and take other steps to improve habitat function. 
·        Establish priority habitat exclusion areas for new ROW permits.
·        Avoid sagebrush reduction/ treatments to increase forage in priority habitat and include plans to restore high-quality habitat in areas with invasive species.
·        Implement range management practices outlined by the NTT, with improvements, including avoiding new range and water developments that negatively impact sage-grouse and applying the 3% disturbance cap to certain range developments.
·        Design fuel treatments to protect existing sagebrush ecosystems (including avoiding such treatments where they will harm sagebrush ecosystems) and prioritize fire suppression to conserve habitat.
·        Ensure disturbance or uses permitted adjacent to priority habitat do not negatively impact sage-grouse populations in priority habitat,[12] thus negating the value of designated priority habitats.
·        Require off-site mitigation for impacts which cannot be mitigated on-site, or where landscape approaches to mitigation offer opportunities to address conservation needs on a larger scale while generating net conservation benefits for sage-grouse.
·        Off-site mitigation should be required to take place in the same eco-region as the project site.
·        Land uses, habitat treatments, and anthropogenic disturbances will need to be managed below thresholds necessary to conserve not only local sage-grouse populations, but sagebrush communities and landscapes as well.
 
A. Preserving Priority Habitat
 
Wherever possible, priority habitat should be set-aside from development or protected via stringent management protocols, especially where it is not subject to valid existing rights. Both BLM and USFS have existing mechanisms for designating lands like sage-grouse priority habitat that have biologically valuable characteristics and are in need of special management attention. By identifying priority sage grouse habitats and developing prescriptions for their maintenance and improvement, the agencies will have taken a critical step forward in as a means of achieving the goal of maintaining and enhancing greater sage-grouse populations. The NTT’s recommendations should be used as a starting point for achieving effective conservation in priority habitats. The agencies should strive to implement them to the fullest extent possible while refining them further to better address specific issues consistent with the most recent science.
 
We recommend the following criteria be used to identify and designate priority habitats for the purpose of conserving Greater sage-grouse:
 
·        Areas of high biological value with respect to meeting all seasonal habitat needs should be identified and considered for priority habitat designation. To inform this effort, the agencies should refer to on-going state efforts to identify important sage-grouse habitat (such as Wyoming’s Core Areas approach), as well as data provided in the BLM report Mapping breeding densities of greater sage-grouse: A tool for range-wide conservation planning.[13]
·        Prioritize habitat conservation in relatively large contiguous areas that are: 1) within areas of high biological value, 2) currently undeveloped, and 3) unencumbered by valid existing rights, and/or have low potential for development (e.g., low wind or oil and gas potential).[14] These areas where high biological value intersects with low energy development potential are low conflict areas sage-grouse habitat conservation.
·        Consider priority habitat designation in high biological value areas that, although encumbered by valid existing rights, are not yet developed. This may be particularly feasible where actual development potential is low despite the existence of valid existing rights (e.g., due to speculative leasing in areas of low energy potential). It may also be feasible in areas where other constraints (e.g., lack of infrastructure, other resource conflicts) will make development relatively difficult and costly. Management in such areas could include aggressive pursuit of available tools to increase the amount of protected habitat, including fluid mineral lease retirements, voluntary grazing permit retirement (where beneficial), mineral withdrawal, coal unsuitability findings, and mineral claim buyouts. Including these areas as priority habitats is vital because 44% of areas with high biological value are at risk for energy development, and one-third of the core areas have been leased for oil and gas development.[15] 
·        Consider prioritizing areas that meet the previous criteria and are near high biological value areas that are likely to be developed to promote resilience of populations disturbed by development.
·        Consider including relatively large contiguous areas of lower biological value areas that currently are undeveloped, are unencumbered by valid existing rights, or have low potential for development. This may be important when such areas increase the size and continuity of the areas described above, or where there are limited areas that meet the previous criteria.[16]
·        Once the above areas have been mapped, work to maximize the spatial continuity and size of designated priority habitats. 
 
B. Habitat Restoration and Reclamation
 
Sage-grouse populations are dependent upon healthy sagebrush ecosystems. Reclaiming or recovering sagebrush habitats is extremely challenging. BLM and USFS should direct efforts toward improving our ability to effectively reclaim degraded habitat, which requires gathering site-specific baseline (pre-treatment) data to adequately evaluate success. Reclamation should be a mandatory stipulation for all development in sage-grouse habitat and managers must recognize that methods for achieving success vary by region and are site-specific. Reclamation efforts should be monitored and results maintained in a single database to improve public understanding and effectiveness of efforts. The agencies should establish a process to identify and address failed reclamation projects.
 
As sage-grouse habitat becomes further fragmented by the increasing frequency of wildfires, restoration will become more important. Sage-grouse have evolved in habitat that has extremely infrequent wildfires, and benefit from the presence of mature sagebrush stands. Habitat fragmentation and alteration due to fire may influence distribution (including lek abandonment) or migratory patterns. We suggest that the final RMPA include a strategy for identifying sagebrush landscapes that are at risk from fire and preparation of a response plan to avoid the conversion of compromised landscapes to ones that are dominated by invasive species following fires.[17]
 
C. Protecting Sage-Grouse Habitat: Monitoring and Adaptive Management
 
Implementation of an effective monitoring and adaptive management process with performance based standards is critical to the success of the National Greater Sage-grouse Planning Strategy. In addition to developing management prescriptions for sage-grouse, plans should establish triggers and thresholds for adaptive management throughout the range. Consequences that will result if triggers or thresholds are reached must be clearly outlined. In addition to a three percent cap on surface disturbance, triggers should include sage-grouse population target ranges, target levels of survival and recruitment in particular areas, and measures of well densities and other development in core areas. Consequences that would result if triggers are reached should include increases in protective measures. Monitoring should be required and adequately funded.
 
D. Renewable Energy
 
Recognizing the threats imposed by climate change, NWF has called for a rapid transition to energy sources other than fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The generation of electricity via solar and wind energy, including utility-scale facilities, is an important component of that transition. At the same time, NWF recognizes that while wind power may be carbon pollution free, it is not impact free. It leaves an industrial footprint on the land and some wildlife habitats will be forever altered by their presence.
 
More than 30% of Greater sage-grouse habitat has high potential for wind power. Utility-scale wind energy development can have damaging effects on sage-grouse and their habitat. As such, wind energy development in sage-grouse habitat has the potential to cause significant impacts on Greater sage-grouse. BLM and USFS play critical roles in ensuring that the boom in wind energy development does not lead to declines in the Greater sage-grouse population. The agencies have sufficient data on quality of wind resources, potential conflicts with other resources and values, and availability of transmission, which should be used to designate wind energy zones, similar to Solar Energy Zones already in place on BLM lands. Through amendments to affected land use plans, BLM and USFS can incorporate not only wind energy zones but also areas that are off limits to wind energy development (as specific industrial-level energy ROW avoidance and exclusion areas).
III.            Conclusion
 
None of the alternatives identified in the NWCO DEIS meets the recommendations included in the scoping comments submitted by NWF and its affiliates, including CWF. Alternative A, the “No Action Alternative” is unacceptable. New conservation efforts are required in order to ensure that the Greater sage-grouse need not be listed as threatened or endangered. Alternative B incorporates the NTT recommendations but fails to address the impacts of wind or solar energy development on sage-grouse habitats. Alternative C is identified as the “Conservation Alternative.” It calls for the retirement of all grazing allotments within all sage-grouse habitats. While NWF and CWF agree that over-grazing and some range “improvement” projects can be damaging to sage-grouse populations, we do not recommend that livestock grazing be eliminated on all sage-grouse habitat.[18] The agencies’ Preferred Alternative D continues to rely on mitigation measures that are inadequate, such as the .25-mile buffer for leks outside preferred habitat.[19] It also permits disturbance levels (5%) within priority habitats that are too great to ensure that Greater sage-grouse will be restored to sustainable populations. It relies heavily on discretionary mitigation actions and permits exceptions to key conservation measures.[20] NWF and CWF, therefore, encourage the agencies to adopt a final plan that incorporates appropriate components of Alternatives B and C and provides effective, science-based measures to address all potential impacts to sage-grouse habitat, including both wind and livestock grazing.
 
We also urge the agencies to adopt an effective adaptive management strategy with meaningful triggers and mandatory responsive measures, including placing additional lands off-limits to damaging human disturbances. We currently have no adequate understanding of what it might
take to reconstruct Greater sage-grouse habitats. Biologists have estimated that it may require 50-100 years to restore sagebrush. Therefore, sage-grouse recovery strategies that rely upon compensatory mitigation through off-site restoration projects must be approached with caution and careful study.
 
Thank you for your consideration of these comments.
 
Sincerely,
 
Kathleen C. Zimmerman
Policy Director, Public Lands
National Wildlife Federation
 
Suzanne B. O’Neill
Executive Director
Colorado Wildlife Federation


[1] Greater sage-grouse currently use as much as 47 million acres of land managed by the BLM, and about nine million acres of land managed by the USFS. BLM Press Release, Federal Agencies Announce Initial Step to Incorporate Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures into Land Management Plans (December 8, 2011), available at http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/news_room/2011/december/08sg-conservation.html.
 
[2] BLM Sage�grouse National Technical Team, A Report on National Greater Sage�Grouse Conservation Measures (December 21, 2011), p. 12.
[3] The agencies’ preferred approach to recovering Greater sage-grouse retains maximum discretion for agency personnel to identify appropriate mitigation on a project-by-project basis. This is the same approach that has resulted in the current sage-grouse losses. Ineffective mitigation measures, inadequate monitoring, and lackluster enforcement have often been the result. With budget cuts, better outcomes are unlikely. The agencies will have fewer resources to dedicate to designing individual approaches and monitoring the effectiveness of mitigation measures for every project impacting Greater sage-grouse habitat. Without the resources to ensure the collection of baseline data and to conduct consistent onsite monitoring of sage-grouse populations and habitat, this flexible approach to mitigation becomes an uncontrolled experiment on a species at extreme risk.
 
[4] BLM Sageâ��grouse National Technical Team, A Report on National Greater Sageâ��Grouse Conservation Measures (December 21, 2011), at p. 7. The National Technical Team calls these areas “priority” sage-grouse habitat.
 
[5] Ibid.
 
[6] For example, the Wyoming BLM proposed 11 contiguous square miles or sections as an appropriate minimum size for an area of habitat to qualify for being set-aside from development. BLM Instruction Memorandum WY-2010-013, available at http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wy/resources/efoia/IMs/2010.Par.43567.File.dat/wy2010-013.pdf. This number should be scaled to allow for protecting smaller contiguous areas in states with smaller populations than Wyoming, or in areas, such as northwest Colorado, where there are few remaining 11 contiguous square-mile areas that are not subject to valid existing rights.
 
[7] See BLM Sage�grouse National Technical Team, A Report on National Greater Sage�Grouse Conservation Measures (December 21, 2011), at p. 52
 
[9] See BLM Instruction Memorandum MT-2010-017.
[10] See BLM Instruction Memorandum No. 2013-142 and Draft Manual Section 1794 (Regional Mitigation) available at: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/regulations/Instruction_Memos_and_Bulletins/national_instruction/2013/IM_2013-142.html.
 
[11] Ideally, the agencies would be able to designate areas of contiguous sage-grouse habitat not currently subject to valid existing rights for long-term or permanent protection. Where important sage-grouse habitat is subject to valid existing rights, the agencies can increase the amount of protected priority habitat by aggressively pursuing available tools, including fluid mineral lease retirements, voluntary grazing permit retirement (where beneficial), mineral withdrawal, coal unsuitability findings, and mineral claim buyouts. These remaining refugia can provide intact, diverse, high quality sagebrush habitat, vital to sage-grouse and obligate species in the sagebrush ecosystem.
 
[12] See BLM, Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Lander Field Office Planning Area, (September 2011), p. 1209, available at  http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/Planning/ rmps/lander/docs/drmp-eis.html (“Development in non-Core Area that pushes activities near the edge of the Core Area is likely to adversely impact the functionality of the adjacent Core Area habitat. Surface disturbance and human activity near this edge could cause degradation of adjacent Core Area habitat and result in Core Area boundaries to erode over time.”)
 
[13] Kevin E. Doherty, Jason D. Tack, Jeffrey S. Evans, and David E. Naugle, Mapping breeding densities of greater sage-grouse: A tool for range-wide conservation planning, BLM Completion Report: Interagency Agreement # L10PG00911 (September 24, 2010), available at http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wo/Communications_ Directorate/public_affairs.Par.46599.File.dat/GRSG%20Rangewide%20Breeding%20Density.pdf.
 
[14] This should include assessment of all valid existing development rights, including oil and gas leases, ROWs, and mining claims.
 
[15] Areas that have recently seen a drastic increase in energy development, such as northwest Colorado, include some of the largest remaining sagebrush landscapes with the highest densities of sage-grouse in North America. Doherty et al. (2009). BLM must limit development in these areas to achieve the goal of maintaining and enhancing populations.
 
[16] Doherty et al. (2009) suggest that these areas represent low conflict opportunities for sage-grouse, and note that such areas may be important, for example, to maintain connectivity between high value core regions.
 
[17] So called “habitat improvement” projects, such as mechanical sagebrush treatments and prescribed fire, can be detrimental to Greater sage-grouse and other sagebrush obligate species. Scientifically defensible research is needed to determine which activities are beneficial. This information should be maintained in a single federal database. 
 
[18] The NWCO DEIS creates a false choice that sets conservation against all other uses. The agencies should instead adopt conservation measures that will conserve a broad range of resources and uses. This approach is most consistent with responsible management of sage-grouse habitat and the many conservation values of these federal lands.
 
[19] Pump stations and other permanent structures should be placed a minimum of 2 miles (3.2 km) from the nearest lek, with a preferred distance of greater than 4 miles (6.4 km) from active leks, based upon the best-available science. See Naugle, D.E., Doherty, K.E., Walker, B.L., Holloran, M.J., Copeland, H.E. 2011. Energy development and greater sage-grouse. In: Greater sage-grouse: ecology and conservation of a landscape species and its habitats. Studies in Avian Biology. University of California Press.
 
[20] USFWS will employ the Policy for Evaluating Conservation Efforts (PECE Policy) to assess the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms when considering whether Endangered Species Act listing is warranted. Under the PECE policy, USFWS “will make this evaluation based on the certainty of implementing the conservation effort and the certainty that the effort will be effective.” 68 Fed. Reg 15113. Alternative D lacks the requisite certainty to ensure that the Greater sage-grouse does not become a listed species.

 

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