WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2017 - The Bureau of Land Management should look at ways to open more greater sage-grouse (GRSG) habitat to oil and gas development, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in response to a review of plans BLM adopted two years ago to avoid listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

“There are multiple opportunities to be responsive” to executive orders addressing U.S. energy independence “while continuing a robust commitment to the conservation of GRSG,” says the report, ordered by Zinke two months ago.

In a memo to newly confirmed Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, Zinke said BLM should focus on issuing a new “prioritization policy” for oil and gas leasing in sage-grouse habitat and “investigate the removal or modification of Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs) in certain states.”

BLM’s 2015 plans prioritized energy development outside of sage-grouse habitat, which include SFAs, considered the highest-value habitat, and Priority Habitat Management Areas (PHMAs). “For oil and gas, approximately 90 percent of lands with high to medium potential are located outside of federally managed priority habitat,” according to a BLM fact sheet on the plans.

Currently, “in states without a demonstrated all-lands regulatory approach to managing disturbance, the BLM will require no-surface occupancy measures in new federal oil and gas leases in (SFAs) and, with exceptions, in (PHMAs),” the fact sheet says. “Exceptions, which will be determined by federal and state sage-grouse biologists, are limited to proposed development that will have no impact or a positive impact on sage-grouse.”

The review ordered by Zinke, however, says BLM should investigate “opportunities to provide additional waivers, modifications, and exceptions through policy or potential plan amendments, while adequately addressing the threats in the area, avoiding habitat loss or fragmentation, and ensuring effective and durable conservation, while providing for economic development.”

“For SFAs, longer term options include considering potential plan amendment(s) to modify or remove SFA fluid minerals stipulations,” the report notes.

The report toggles between providing fairly general, broad-based recommendations and identifying short- and long-term issues that need to be discussed further, such as grazing restrictions and wildland fire strategy.

For example, in discussing population targets, the report acknowledges that “states do not routinely establish statewide population targets” for birds, and sage-grouse numbers “vary widely in a relatively short period of time, within individual states and across the range.”

“Ultimately, the best method for determining GRSG viability will be to assess a combination of habitat availability and populations, which are inseparable,” the report says. Nevertheless, “The DOI Team recommends that establishing a statewide or range-wide (sage-grouse) population objective or target should be pursued.” And Zinke’s memo directs Bernhardt to “work with states to improve techniques and methods to allow the states to set appropriate population objectives.”

Two western governors who co-chair the federal-state Sage-Grouse Task Force wrote to Zinke before the review was launched to express concerns about potential changes to BLM’s plans.

Governors Matt Mead, R-Wyo., and John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., told Zinke they were “concerned” that using population targets “is not the right decision.” They also said that “wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time.”

Mead also has expressed concerns about captive breeding, an approach Zinke touted when announcing the review. “I follow the lead of our scientists and experts on that who suggested that’s just really not going to be something that works,” Mead told WyoFile in June.

The report concedes that “captive breeding of (sage-grouse) has not yet proven effective (and would require) expenditures that would limit funding availability for other priority efforts.” Still, the report “recommends that new captive breeding efforts continue to be investigated to improve effectiveness.”

Much of the report discusses potential future changes to the ways land is managed in sage-grouse habitat. For instance, the report identifies as an “option” the development of guidance “on how to prioritize and complete grazing permit renewal.” In addition, “Policies and training should clarify that proper livestock grazing is compatible with (sage-grouse) habitat and, in some cases, may be used to address threats” to the bird, by controlling invasive exotic annual grass species.

There has been “a perception of undue emphasis on livestock grazing in general, instead of a focus on improper grazing” in the federal plans.

Both the federal-state Sage-Grouse Task Force and the Interior review team “recognize that improper grazing is a threat” to sage-grouse conservation, “while proper grazing management is compatible with conserving (sage-grouse) habitat and, in some situations, may support or benefit habitat management,” the report says.

“During an initial review of the report, I was encouraged by several key priorities including the compatibility of proper grazing management and conservation,” said Public Lands Council President, Dave Eliason in a statement. “The report acknowledges the need for a more collaborative approach between grazing permittees and federal leadership, as well as a reexamination of the Habitat Objectives Table and its application – both key elements to successful conservation efforts for the Greater Sage Grouse. The report also reinforced the need to pursue outcome-based grazing demonstration projects and targeted grazing pilot projects, two critical tools for responsive management of ecosystems and fuel loads."

Mitigation requirements also need tweaking in order to provide consistency between federal and state standards, the report says. The federal plans’ “net conservation gain” standard “may differ from requirements in some of the state plans,” the report says, noting that the Interior Department “is currently reviewing its mitigation policies and may issue revised policy, including consideration of various mitigation standards, such as one-to-one ratio, equivalent value, no net loss, or other standards.”


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