BLM, Forest Service land use plans finalizedWritten by Saige Albert
On Sept. 22, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service announced that their land use plans would be implemented.
The plans were met with concern by many, including the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The plans have been under development for many years, and BLM said, “Effective conservation of the Greater sage grouse and its habitat requires a collaborative, landscape-scale, science-based approach that includes strong federal plans, a strong commitment to conservation on state and private lands and a proactive strategy to reduce the risk of rangeland fires.”
“The BLM and Forest Service land use plans will conserve key sagebrush habitat, address identified threats to the Greater sage grouse and promote sustainable economic development in the West,” BLM continued.
The 98 BLM and Forest Service plans represent the federal land covering 10 western states. They are based on three objectives – minimizing new or additional surface disturbance, improving habitat condition and reducing threat of rangeland fire to sage grouse and sagebrush habitat.
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna commented, “The idea of releasing two Records of Decision to cover 98 BLM offices is unique. It sounds like, on the surface, this ought to represent efficiency.”
“It also represents conformity and standardization, which can be bad for people who are impacted by these plans,” he added.
Changes from a draft
Magagna noted that BLM responded to and denied nearly all of the objections that were filed in response to the plans. However, there were a handful of positive changes in the document due primarily to work done under the Governor’s consistency review.
“One of the critical elements of Wyoming’s own plan was recognition that grazing was not a major impact on sage grouse. The original Executive Order (EO) said grazing was de-minimus,” he explained. “To satisfy BLM and others, a new EO that Gov. Mead issued in 2013 said proper grazing was not an impact and could be beneficial to sage grouse.”
“The EO further stated that where improper grazing was identified through at least three years of monitoring, the BLM and state would work collaboratively with permittees to address those negative impacts,” Magagna said. “The final BLM Record of Decision adopted the ‘improper grazing’ language. That is significant.”
Other changes related to grazing improvements were made, providing additional opportunities for improvements to be made with appropriate modifications.
On another item important to agriculture, Magagna noted that the draft documents contained language he called “very disturbing.”
“There was language in the draft that said when permits were voluntarily relinquished, BLM would consider closing those permits permanently to grazing in sage grouse habitat,” he said. “The language is much broader now. It says if permits are voluntarily relinquished, BLM will look at the range of opportunities – from reissuing permits to creating forage reserve to closing areas to grazing where appropriate.”
Magagna also noted concerns with some of the numbers utilized in the plans.
“It is disturbing that the BLM proposed a six-inch stubble height for nesting and brood rearing areas, in the draft plan, then increased this to seven inches in the final plan to conform with Forest Service plans, stating that this ‘was requested by objectors.’”
While there is recognition in the plan that a seven-inch stubble height isn’t attainable range-wide, Magagna is concerned that anywhere it isn’t met will be challenged, leaving BLM to prove that it isn’t attainable.
“The same concern occurs with requirements on nesting and brood rearing,” he added. “There are some places that a requirement for those conditions to be met across 80 percent across the landscape could be a huge challenge.”
In Wyoming, the Forest Service’s land management plans apply to approximately 2,600 acres of sage grouse habitat on the Bridger Teton National Forest.
Magagna observed that the Forest Service plan appears significantly less deferential to Wyoming’s Executive Order. For example, the plan does not distinguish “improper grazing.”
“The future of the sage grouse depends on the successful implementation of the federal and state management plans and the actions of private landowners, as well as a continuing focus on reducing invasive grasses and controlling rangeland fire,” said the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to monitoring all of the continuing efforts and population trends, as well as to reevaluating the status of the species in five years.”
Magagna offered that implementation is where many of the unknowns lie.
“I wouldn’t say the plans themselves offer flexibility,” he said. “They dictate, depending on the type of sage grouse habitat present, the requirements that need to be met.”
Nevertheless, BLM has committed to be adaptive to circumstances and to work on the implementation of plans with Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team. This is particularly important in Wyoming as the BLM plan amendments follow Wyoming’s core area strategy in significant ways, Magagna commented.
Magagna also noted that the implementation of plans will occur over the next several years.
Forest Service specifically states that they intend to implement their plan over a two- to three-year period. On the Bridger Teton, it will be implemented for the 2017 grazing season. They indicate that for the National Grasslands, implementation may extend into 2018.
BLM has not indicated a specific timeframe, instead promising to utilize the proper procedures and work toward positive progress in implementing plans.