December 2, 2017
NWF and several western affiliates including CWF submitted our comments on December 1 to BLM's intent to overhaul the 2015 greater sage grouse plans. The plans, while not perfect, certainly do not warrant an overhaul after the long years of collaborative work by many diverse interests.
December 1, 2017
Bureau of Land Management Department of the Interior 1849 C Street NW Washington, D.C. 20240
Submitted via email to BLM_sagegrouseplanning@blm.gov firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .
Re: Notice of Intent to Amend Land Use Plans Regarding Greater Sage-Grouse, Docket No.: LLWO200000/LXSGPL000000/17x/L11100000.PH0000
Dear Deputy Director Steed:
These comments are submitted in response to the recent Notice of Intent to Amend Land Use Plans Regarding Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Prepare Associated Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Assessments (NOI). The NOI was issued by the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on October 11, 2017. These agencies state that the NOI has been released in response to a federal court decision. On March 31, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada held that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the designation of Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFA) in the Nevada and Northeastern California Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Management Plan (RMP) Amendment in Nevada.
The NOI, however, indicates that BLM intends to consider amending all, some or none of its land use plans that were amended or revised in 2014 and 2015 regarding Greater sage-grouse conservation in the States of California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Montana (2015 Sage-Grouse Plans). More specifically, BLM seeks comment not only on the SFA designations in Nevada and Northeastern California but on elements of all the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans, including all SFA designations, mitigation standards, lek buffers in all habitat management area types, disturbance and density caps, habitat boundaries and reversing adaptive management responses when BLM determines that resource conditions no longer warrant those responses. BLM also seeks comment on state-specific issues, such as the need for General Habitat Management Areas in Utah, and other issues identified by state, tribal, and local governments.
Many of these issues were raised in response to Secretarial Order 3353, Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States (June 7, 2017) (Order 3353). Following Order 3353, DOI appointed a DOI Sage-Grouse Review Team (DOI Team). In developing its report and recommendations, the DOI Team sought input from the eleven Western states impacted by the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans. It must be noted that a primary finding of the DOI Team’s Report in Response to Secretarial Order 3353 (August 4, 2017) (Review Team Report) is the interest of most states in retaining the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans.
These comments are filed on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, the Idaho Wildlife Federation, the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the Muley Fanatic Foundation.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has over six million members and supporters, many of whom use and enjoy public lands that could be impacted by any decision on the part of BLM to abandon the commitments contained in the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans to conserve and restore vital sagebrush wildlife habitat.
The Colorado Wildlife Federation (CWF) 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 public lands in Colorado and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain region that likely will be impacted by a decision to discard the substance of the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans.
The Idaho Wildlife Federation is Idaho's oldest statewide conservation organization founded in 1936 by sportsmen and women. For over 80 years its members have utilized Greater sage-grouse habitat on public lands for traditional uses that contribute to their quality of life and put food on the table. Degrading the remaining high quality habitats of sage-grouse country will further diminish Idaho's outdoor heritage and will certainly decrease the quality of life that draws so many to Idaho and the West.
The Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF) is Montana’s oldest and largest sportsmen’s conservation organization. It has led efforts to protect Montana’s abundant fish and wildlife, natural lands and waters, and public access for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation. Its thousands of members hunt and fish in sage-grouse country and want to see the sagebrush steppe ecosystem protected so that the sage-grouse and Montana's most iconic species - mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and elk - can flourish for future generations to enjoy.
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation (WWF) was established in 1937 and is headquartered in Lander, Wyoming. WWF works to conserve wildlife, habitat and outdoor opportunities and represents tens of thousands of hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts. WWF has been a member of the Wyoming Sage-Grouse Implementation Team since its inception. WWF has worked alongside diverse stakeholders from across the state to assist in developing a management plan that benefits the bird as well as the economy and way of life here in the West.
The Muley Fanatic Foundation (MFF) is a 501 C (3) non-profit conservation organization established in 2012. Headquartered in Green River, Wyoming, MFF aims to ensure the conservation of mule deer and their habitat and to provide supporting services to further the sport of hunting and sound wildlife management. With 14 Chapters covering Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho, MFF has been responsible for allocating over 2.2 million dollars to on the ground projects to improve mule deer habitat. MFF's regard for sagebrush and its ecosystem goes hand in hand with a healthy mule deer population. The sagebrush steppe provides critical winter range as well as key breeding and fawning grounds that deer rely on heavily. Numerous critters from big game, small game, reptiles, birds and a host of other living things depend on sagebrush for food and shelter. The efforts of maintaining and ensuring a vast and sprawling sagebrush sea is the answer to a plethora of conservation challenges being tackled today.
We make no claim that the plans are perfect. A recent study led by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) praises the multistate effort as "a grand experiment in conservation biology and reserve design."1 To a certain extent, a leap of faith is required. However, a wealth of science supports the structure of the plans including BLM’s own National Technical Team (NTT), USFWS’s Conservation Objectives Team (COT), USGS’s Summary Report, as well as the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). We urge DOI and BLM to honor the many years of work and collaboration among scientists and diverse stakeholders across the West that resulted in the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans and give them a chance to succeed.2
The West’s sagebrush lands have long been viewed as a throwaway landscape, managed for commodity production. BLM’s wilderness inventory process, for example, dropped sagebrush lands from consideration based on claims that they engendered “a feeling of monotony.” Even though a sagebrush landscape may look bland and monotonous to the casual observer, these fragile and disappearing ecosystems are teeming with life, life that is deserving of a chance to thrive. The Greater sage-grouse should be given that chance.3
1. Current Greater Sage-Grouse Population Status
Greater sage-grouse have lost more than half of their native habitat and their numbers have plummeted from an estimated 16 million to less than 500,000. Greater sage-grouse are what
1 The same study also raises concerns about whether the federal and state plans will adequately protect connectivity between priority habitats. However, the study fails to recognize the protections afforded for some lands outside priority habitats.
2 We also note that key elements of many state plans, including the Colorado Statewide Conservation Plan, would be removed or substantially modified if the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans are re-written, placing the structure, function and reliability of these state plans at great risk.
3 These landscapes also are important to mule deer, pronghorn and other big game species. For example, the overlap between Greater sage-grouse habitat and big game habitat in Colorado is 91.1 percent. The same habitat also is relied upon by an array of species of greatest conservation need identified in many state wildlife action plans.
2. The 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans
In 2010, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) described a lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms to conserve sage-grouse as a primary factor supporting an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing for the species, particularly on public lands administered BLM.5 The USFWS identified BLM Resource Management Plans (RMPs) as the principle mechanism by which BLM can regulate land management to conserve sage-grouse (75 Fed. Reg. 13975) but determined that BLM’s then current RMPs were inadequate and/or inconsistently applied to conserve the species. For example, in reviewing standard permit conditions for natural gas, oil and other fluid minerals development on public lands, a primary threat to sage-grouse (Manier et al. 2013), USFWS determined that the “BLM stipulations most commonly attached to leases and permits are inadequate for the protection of sage-grouse, and for the long-term maintenance of their populations in those areas affected by oil and gas development activities” (75 Fed. Reg. 13978). The agency further observed that “approximately 73 percent of leased lands in known sage-grouse breeding habitat have no stipulations at all” to conserve sage-grouse (75 Fed. Reg. 13978).
USFWS was similarly concerned about the uncertain or inconsistent application of management prescriptions in sage-grouse range. For example, USFWS found that, although BLM grazing standards are supposed to restore, maintain and enhance habitat for BLM special status species,
4 Connelly et al. (2004) reported that Greater sage-grouse populations declined at an overall rate 2.0% per year from 1965-2003. An analysis by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA 2008) indicated similar range-wide declining trends for sage-grouse from 1965-2007. An analysis by Garton et al. (2011) assessed long-term changes in sage-grouse populations by Sage-grouse Management Zone (SMZ) and found similar declines. Moreover, Garton et al. (2011) suggested at least 3 of 23 populations may decline below effective population size of 50 within the next 30 years and at least 18 of 23 populations and 2 of 7 SMZs are likely to decline below effective population size of 500 within 100 years if current conditions and trends persist.
5 A key listing criterion under the ESA is the “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” to conserve threatened or endangered species ((16 U.S.C. § 1533(a)(1)(D)). The act does not define what constitutes an “existing regulatory mechanism,” but federal courts have determined that they do not include unenforceable measures or plans for future action. The Ninth Circuit has unmistakably stated that “[a]s a matter of law, unenforceable, voluntary promises do not constitute ‘regulatory mechanisms’” under the ESA (Greater Yellowstone Coal., Inc. v. Servheen, 665 F.3d 1015, 1036 (9th Cir. 2011)). The U.S. District Court in Oregon has similarly found that “for the same reason that the Secretary may not rely on future actions, he should not be able to rely on unenforceable efforts. Absent some method of enforcing compliance, protection of a species can never be assured. Voluntary actions, like those planned in the future, are necessarily speculative” (Or. Natural Resources Council v. Daley, 6 F.Supp.2d 1139, 1154 (D.Or.1998)).
BLM had failed to compile “information necessary to assess how this regulatory mechanism affects sage-grouse conservation” (75 Fed. Reg. 13976) and that it is unclear “whether or not these regulatory mechanisms are being implemented in a manner that conserves sage-grouse...” (75 Fed. Reg. 13977). USFWS thoroughly analyzed BLM management of sage-grouse habitat and concluded that “[i]n many areas existing mechanisms (or their implementation) on BLM lands and BLM-permitted actions do not adequately address the conservation needs of greater sage-grouse, and are exacerbating the effects of threats to the species” (75 Fed. Reg. 13979).
In short, BLM had failed to use its planning authority to conserve sage-grouse while managing other multiple uses on public lands.
In response to these concerns, BLM (and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as a cooperating agency) initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in 2011 to “incorporate consistent objectives and conservation measures for the protection of greater sage-grouse and its habitat” into relevant federal land management plans (76 Fed. Reg. 77009). This Planning Strategy resulted four years later in the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans.
The 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans are built on an approach that provides the greatest protection for the most valuable habitat. The plans safeguard vital habitat in what are identified as Priority Habitat Management Areas (PHMAs) (with an additional 3.1 million acres of “important habitat” in Idaho) – over 10 million acres of which are Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs) that receive the greatest protection. Only approximately one-third of the existing Greater sage-grouse habitat on federally managed public lands are designated as PHMAs. There is also acreage designated as General Habitat Management Areas (GHMAs). GHMAs will be managed in ways that can benefit the species and are more restrictive than non-habitat areas, but management prescriptions are more flexible and less protective than priority and important habitat designations. In total, a little more than 67 million acres will be provided some level of conservation under the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans (along with similar land use management plan amendments adopted by USFS).6
More specifically, to address the threat imposed by infrastructure associated with development, the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans, based on current research, establish a 3% disturbance cap for anthropogenic disturbance within PHMAs.7 Once that disturbance cap is reached, additional development will not be permitted on federal lands within the PHMA. The plans also establish buffers around breeding areas known as leks in both PHMAs and GHMAs. With respect to energy development specifically, the plans designate PHMAs as “avoidance” or “exclusion” areas for renewable energy infrastructure and limit oil and gas production to one well pad per 640-acre section.
6 This represents approximately two-thirds of identified habitat on federal lands.
7 Wyoming has a 5% surface-disturbance threshold and Montana can move to a 5% threshold upon completion of the Governor’s Executive Order and establishment of a track record. Wyoming and Montana include additional sources of disturbance in calculations (natural disturbance such as fire), whereas the 3% disturbance caps in other BLM plans only account for anthropogenic disturbance. As such, the 5% and the 3% are generally comparable.
To address fire, invasive species and pinyon-juniper encroachment, the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans include as an appendix (or reference) the report Using Resistance and Resilience Concepts to Reduce Impacts of Invasive Annual Grasses and Altered Fire Regimes on the Sagebrush Ecosystem and Greater Sage-Grouse: A Strategic Multi-Scale Approach (Chambers et al. 2014).8
The 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans do not prohibit or restrict livestock grazing. However, the plans recognize that improper grazing can have negative impacts on grouse habitat.9 It can change the composition and structure of herbaceous plants in sagebrush communities and impact the productivity of nesting and early brood-rearing habitats. The plans prioritize evaluating whether PHMAs are meeting BLM’s Rangeland Health Standards (RHS) and establish protocols for adjusting livestock grazing management at the time of allotment renewal, if necessary.10
Each RMP includes adaptive management protocols, including “hard” and “soft” habitat and population “triggers” – or levels of decline in either populations (based on lek counts) or habitats that would result in changes to management. Management responses are established in the event a hard trigger is tripped. Soft trigger responses are meant to reverse declines such that a hard trigger is not tripped. Each plan includes a comprehensive, broad-based monitoring framework explicitly establishing analytical approaches and data sources.
Each plan also includes a regional mitigation strategy with a mitigation standard of net conservation gain to the species.11
On the basis of the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans, USFWS was able to reconsider its determination with respect to the ESA status of the Greater sage-grouse and find that a listing was no longer warranted.
SPECIFIC ISSUES RAISED IN THE NOTICE OF INTENT
We support the central framework of the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans, the approach of delineating “core” or “priority” habitats that must be permanently protected from both direct and indirect
8 This report establishes an approach for prioritizing and managing invasive annual grasses, conifer expansion and wildfire. However, the sage-grouse's other top threats -- oil and gas drilling, wind farm developments, transmission lines and mining are easier to control.
9 Generally, grazing is not considered a major threat by USFWS, but improper grazing can reduce vegetative cover and provide opportunities for invasives, such as cheatgrass.
10 The habitat objectives tables included in each BLM plan also provide management prescriptions specific to the needs of sage-grouse. All activities, including grazing, should be managed to meet sage-grouse habitat objectives and not just RHS.
11 While this is a critically important standard, it should be noted that habitat for sage-grouse cannot be created or restored quickly and occupied habitat should not be removed with the expectation that it can be provided elsewhere and especially in the same timeframe as the perturbation to habitat. Reclamation of disturbed big sagebrush plant communities may take more than 80 years.
impacts of development.12 These priority areas should include breeding, nesting, late broodâï¿½ï¿½ rearing, winter concentration areas and migration or connectivity corridors.13 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.14 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.15
While some provisions of the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans might be clarified through additional guidance or plan maintenance actions, these core elements must be retained in order to support their function and effectiveness and to ensure that an ESA listing remains unwarranted. Reliance on “conservation measures” that are not supported by current science, such as population targets and captive breeding, and others which are not really prescriptive but merely suggestions that can be waived16 will not be sufficient to ensure that sage-grouse are restored and that no further action by USFWS will be required.
We also note that any evaluation of potential modifications to the plans and/or actions to make such changes must include meaningful public oversight and input. There were substantial
12 BLM’s NTT defines priority habitat as “areas that have the highest conservation value to maintaining or increasing sageâï¿½ï¿½grouse populations.” BLM Sageâï¿½ï¿½grouse National Technical Team, A Report on National Greater Sageâï¿½ï¿½Grouse Conservation Measures (December 21, 2011) at 7.
14 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.
15 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. See BLM Sageâï¿½ï¿½grouse National Technical Team, A Report on National Greater Sageâï¿½ï¿½Grouse Conservation Measures (December 21, 2011) at 52
16 An approach to recovering Greater sage-grouse that retains maximum discretion for agency personnel to permit activities and identify appropriate mitigation on a project-by-project basis, for example, is insufficient. 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. BLM 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 financial 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.
opportunities for public engagement in the process that produced the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans and similar opportunities must be provided for any revisions.
BLM should retain SFAs with or without mineral withdrawals. Within PHMAs, the final plans also identify Sagebrush Focal Areas, based on such factors as population density and habitat integrity. The additional layer of habitat protections provided in the SFAs responds directly to the concerns raised in USFWS’s 2010 Greater sage-grouse warranted finding regarding habitat disturbance and the lack of adequate regulatory measures to prevent continued losses.
has now canceled its SFA withdrawal application and the proposed withdrawal of 10 million
acres from location and entry under the mining law in six Western States.
Even without the mineral withdrawal, however, the SFAs remain important to the conservation and restoration of sage-grouse. For example, SFAs are used to prioritize fire protection, habitat restoration and other management actions. This approach allows BLM to target limited resources to those areas identified by USFWS and others as most important to long-term sagebrush ecosystem health and species persistence. For these reasons, the SFAs are particularly valuable as sites for concentrating initial efforts to build sustained populations of birds and should be maintained.
BLM must retain measures to reduce destruction and fragmentation of habitat.
Significant provisions addressing energy development and other causes of habitat fragmentation in the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans include:
• No Surface Occupancy (NSO) stipulations regarding oil and gas development within PHMAs;
• Exclusion areas for development of wind, solar and transmission lines; and
• Limitations on the amount and timing of surface-disturbing activities, such as disturbance caps and buffers around leks.
Any substantial changes to these provisions would risk the effectiveness of the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans. The Lander RMP DEIS and FEIS in Wyoming both specifically recognized this, as did the Miles City RMP in Montana:
Lek losses would be expected to be 2 to 5 times greater in areas with development above the less than or equal to 1 well per development per square mile threshold, and abundance (males per lek) at the remaining leks would be expected to decline by approximately 30 to 80 percent. In some areas, such as in the Cedar Creek Anticline, decreased male attendance at leks has exceeded 80 percent, which is largely attributed to oil and gas development. The efficacy of BLM NSO stipulations for leasing and development within 0.25 miles of a lek would result in an estimated lek persistence (the ability of leks to remain on the landscape) of approximately 5 percent, while lek persistence in areas without oil and gas
The final Records of Decision (RODs) for the 2015
Sage-Grouse Plans committed BLM to seek mineral withdrawals within the SFAs
specifically to address the threat of surface disturbance from hardrock mining. BLM
development would be expected to average approximately 85 percent. Impacts from energy development occur at distances between 3 and 4 miles. [...] Impacts to leks caused by energy development would be most severe near the lek. Although most of the impacts from energy development are indirect, some direct effects, such as flying into overhead power lines would also result from energy development and ROWs. Lek extirpation in areas with 8 wells per section (40 to 100 wells) within 2 miles of the lek would be 5 times more likely to occur than in areas with no wells within 2 miles, and male attendance at the remaining leks in these areas would be expected to decline by approximately 20 to 60 percent (Doherty 2008)17.” [...] The oil and gas restriction from March 1 to June 15 would be insufficient to protect breeding populations of sage-grouse. Although timing would provide limited protection for sage-grouse, it would only offer this protection during the initial nesting year. Sage-grouse, which exhibit high nest- site fidelity (they come back to the same area every year), would experience less nest success and brood survival in nesting habitat. As described above, 18 development would potentially lead to abandonment and population loss.
The use of a smaller 0.6 mile buffer around leks in PHMAs and 0.25 mile NSO for leks in occupied habitat or GHMAs has been repeatedly shown by science (Holloran 200519, Walker et al. 200720) to be inadequate to maintain lek activity. Topography, however, can be relevant in determining the area needed for a viable buffer.
3. BLM must ensure harms are fully mitigated. Mitigation is a necessary part of the plans’ structure. The plans are set up ultimately to improve and restore habitat, using a net gain requirement, which should be retained in order to continue expanding suitable habitat and making up for years of precipitous loss.
Conservation goals of the plans can only be achieved if the full mitigation hierarchy, including avoidance and minimization, is rigorously employed. The Review Team Report states that both the Review Team and the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) Sage Grouse Task Force agree that consistent application of the mitigation hierarchy is desirable. Application of strict avoidance and minimization principles is critical because we cannot begin to reduce impacts to sagebrush habitat if development continues to occur
17 Doherty, K. E. 2008 Sage-grouse and Energy Development: Integrating Science with Conservation Planning to Reduce Impacts. (Doctoral dissertation, the University of Montana). Missoula. Available at: http://etd.lib.umt.edu/theses/available/etd-03262009-132629/unrestricted/doherty.pdf.
18 Draft Resource Management Plan Revision and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Miles City Field Office at 4-135; see also Miles City Field Office Proposed Resource Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement at 4-149 to 4-150.
19 Holloran, M.J. 2005. Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) population response to natural gas field development in western Wyoming. Dissertation. University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY.
20 Walker, B. L., D. E. Naugle, and K. E. Doherty. 2007. Greater sage-grouse population response to energy development and habitat loss. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(8):2644-2654.
on the best habitat. Restoration resulting from compensatory mitigation continues to be challenging in sagebrush habitat.21
In further recognition of the difficulty of addressing many of the most significant threats facing conservation of Greater sage-grouse and their habitat, we urge BLM to retain the net conservation gain requirement set forth in the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans. In 2010, USFWS identified the invasion of non-native annual grasses and the loss of habitat from the increased frequency and intensity of wildfire in the Great Basin as the primary threat to the Greater sage-grouse in that portion of its remaining range. BLM can manage other threats -- oil and gas drilling, wind farm developments, transmission lines, mining and improper grazing, but land managers cannot regulate fire, and they have had little luck stopping an invasive plant that can produce more than 10,000 seeds per square meter.
While USFWS can forecast with some confidence the future threat of energy development and other human disturbances to Greater sage-grouse, wildfire and cheatgrass are relative wild cards. Consider that in just three years, 2012 to 2014, wildfires burned nearly 3.7 million acres of sagebrush habitat according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Research suggests it will take many decades before those lands can be restored to support Greater sage-grouse, if at all. Today, invasive annual grasses, primarily cheatgrass, dominate about 25 million acres of the Great Basin -- an area the size of Kentucky -- and may be spreading to hundreds more acres each day. In 30 years, cheatgrass in the Great Basin may be five times more prevalent than it is today, according to USFWS. "We likely cannot completely eradicate the problem," says a USFWS fact sheet. "It's much like a disease -- we can't cure it, so we have to treat, manage, and learn how [to] live with it."
Given these threats that BLM cannot yet control, it is imperative that any habitat losses resulting from agency-permitted activities such as energy development be fully addressed. 22
21 The COT Report also supports conserving Priority Areas for Conservation (PACs) through “an avoidance first strategy” to protect priority habitat and retain management options:
In light of these significant uncertainties, impacts to sage-grouse and their habitats should be avoided to the maximum extent possible to retain conservation options. This approach will ensure that potentially unidentified key components to long-term viability of sage-grouse are not lost, and that management flexibility and the ability to implement management changes will be retained as current information gaps are filled.
Implementing an avoidance first strategy should reduce or avoid continuing declines of sage-grouse populations and habitats, as well as limit further reduction in management and restoration options. When avoidance is not possible, meaningful minimization and mitigation of the impacts should be implemented, along with a monitoring program to evaluate the efficacy of these measures. Conservation measures should be adapted to maximize effectiveness as new knowledge is obtained.
COT Report at 31.
22 In order for BLM to rely on mitigation to reduce potentially significant impacts, NEPA requires that the agencies make a firm commitment to the mitigation and discuss the mitigation measures “in sufficient detail to ensure that environmental consequences have been fairly evaluated....” Communities, Inc. v.Busey, 956 F.2d 619, 626 (6th Cir.
BLM must retain authority to monitor and adjust the plans as conditions on the ground change. BLM must clearly demonstrate that any significant difficulties (such as precipitous declines in habitat condition or population) will be identified and addressed in a timely fashion. The 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans include Habitat Objectives Tables, Habitat Assessment Frameworks, and Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring measures. These components are intended to yield detailed information on how well the plans are working. They also support the plans’ adaptive management framework, which calls for immediate action when hard or soft triggers are tripped.
The Review Team Report suggests the option of conducting a “causal factor analysis” to determine what caused any trigger to be tripped and implies that this could be a requirement before responses are instituted. We urge caution with respect to such a requirement. Exhaustive casual factor analyses are costly and time consuming and could needlessly delay critical corrective actions.
Unique elements of plans in some states.
Wyoming RMPs are tied to the State’s Core Area Strategy. The RMPs in Wyoming are specifically dependent on limiting fragmentation in PHMA across all land ownership, as required by state law. BLM must maintain those same limits.
Protections for general habitat in Utah should not be eliminated. The Review Team Report includes a proposal to evaluate removing GHMA as a classification in the Utah RMPs. The COT Report states that conservation of sage-grouse habitats outside of priority areas for conservation may be essential. This is to ensure that seasonal habitats not included in priority areas receive some protection and to allow for expansion of recovering populations into newly restored areas. In addition, general habitat may also include migration corridors and support habitat connectivity.
Additional measures to strengthen the plans. While we strongly support retaining the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans, there are aspects of the plans that could be strengthened through better guidance. For example:
a. BLM should clarify its guidance regarding livestock grazing. The lack of clear guidance regarding management of grazing in sage-grouse habitat has led to significant but unnecessary misunderstandings. Guidance should clarify:
1992). NEPA also directs that the “possibility of mitigation” should not be relied upon as a means to avoid further environmental analysis. Forty Most Asked Questions Concerning CEQ’s National Environmental Policy Act Regulations. See also Davis v. Mineta, 302 F.3d 1104, 1125 (10th Cir. 2002).
No lands are closed to grazing in the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans;
Achieving habitat objectives for vegetation (such as grass or forb height) will
be evaluated based on a specific site’s ability to meet those objectives; and
Changes to management, including grazing practices, based on failure to meet habitat objectives, will be grounded on site-specific determinations regarding the cause of that failure and whether management changes can be expected to improve habitat conditions.23
b. BLM should clarify its commitment to prioritize oil and gas leasing and development outside sage-grouse habitat. BLM should issue clear guidance regarding the requirement that new leasing and development in sage-grouse habitat be avoided where feasible. The 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans make the intent of this obligation evident stating:
In addition to allocations that limit disturbance in PHMAs and GHMAs, the ARMPs [Approved Resource Management Plans] and ARMPAs [Approved Resource Management Plan Amendments] prioritize oil and gas leasing and development outside of identified PHMAs and GHMAs. This is to further limit future surface disturbance and encourage new development in areas that would not conflict with GRSG [Greater sage- grouse]. This objective is intended to guide development to lower conflict areas and as such protect important habitat and reduce the time and cost associated with oil and gas leasing development by avoiding sensitive areas, reducing the complexity of environmental review and analysis of potential impacts on sensitive species, and decreasing the need for compensatory mitigation.24
The majority of federal lands within sage-grouse priority habitat (PHMA) have zero to low assumed potential for oil and gas development production. Similarly, the majority of federal lands identified as having high or medium oil and gas development potential are located outside priority sage-grouse habitat. Moreover, the use of directional drilling technology means that most oil and gas resources can be developed, even if they are under important sage-grouse habitat.25
23 Note new study questioning correlation between grass height and nesting success: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.3679/full .