BLM releases sage grouse plan |

BLM releases sage grouse plan

Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho – Federal land managers have released a strategy to boost sage grouse numbers, hoping to bolster the population of America’s second-largest game bird after a 90 percent decline since the early 1900s.

The fate of the sage grouse, found in 11 states, is garnering national attention because its habitat sits atop some of the nation’s richest natural gas fields in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

Developers wanting to drill for gas are closely watching government plans, as are cattlemen, off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists, some of whom dismissed the Bureau of Land Management strategy as a failure.

BLM said its strategy will guide its federal wildlife managers in restoring bird populations and habitat until programs can be developed on the state and local level.

“The importance of working with state wildlife agencies cannot be overemphasized,” BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said in a statement. “We’ll continue to use the best available science and experience-based knowledge to form our management decisions.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still studying whether low bird numbers warrant Endangered Species Act protection. Sage grouse numbers have declined to about 200,000 from more than 2 million a century ago.

Clarke said the BLM’s strategy puts into place “specific, enforceable requirements to protect sagebrush habitat in permits issued for grazing, recreation, mining and oil and gas activities on public land.”

The BLM owns half of U.S. sagebrush habitat, about 57 million acres.

Some western politicians and wildlife managers hailed the BLM strategy as finding a proper balance.

“This is another indication that federal officials, under the leadership of President Bush, fully appreciate the importance of working closely with state and local officials when developing public lands policies,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

Terry Crawforth, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said the BLM plan provides general ground rules to make sound land-use decisions to improve habitat.

“We’ve got 70 local-area planning groups making local-area plans and implementing local-area projects for conservation of sagebrush,” Crawforth said. “BLM has been a player all along. This is firming up that commitment to continue the partnership.”

But environmental groups working to restore sagebrush habitat and species that live there said the agency’s plan doesn’t do enough.

Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign in Chandler, Ariz., said the BLM plan fails to create minimum standards for activities that might hurt sage grouse.

“The BLM is under pressure from the current administration to continue to develop these lands for oil and gas exploitation, to maintain current livestock grazing and to maintain open areas for off-road vehicles,” Salvo said.

Salvo said he sees nothing in the BLM strategy released Tuesday that might affect the Fish and Wildlife study of whether the birds should be listed as endangered. Results of that study are due Dec. 29.

The BLM said its plan helps define methods for assessing risks to sage grouse. The strategy identifies things its managers can do that have proven successful in some areas of the West.

For instance, managers might consider practices such as “green-stripping,” or removing old vegetation and replanting native vegetation, along roads leading to oil and gas developments. This has been done in northeastern Utah.

The BLM also encourages efforts such as the work of a group in Idaho’s Shoshone Basin to manage BLM grazing allotments for both livestock forage and sage-grouse habitat. The percentage of grouse habitat there rated as “excellent” rose to 24 percent of the allotment, up from 2 percent.