Rapid ecosystem assessment emerges in Wyo
Beginning almost five years ago, the Department of the Interior (DOI) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices around the West launched an effort to catalog the flora and fauna of the western landscape, a project known as Rapid Eco-Regional Assessments (REAs).
“These REAs have an interesting history,” explains Marty Griffith, multi-resource manager for the BLM. “They started at the department-level almost five years ago when there were concerns with the development of solar energy in the southwest.”
The massive solar projects in the region were having impacts on the ecosystem, and DOI was interested in assessing those impacts.
“During a detail that I was a part of at our National Operations Center three years ago, we thought if these concerns exist in the southwest, what other developments are having impacts?” asks Griffith.
The result was the effort to begin developing REAs across the West.
“The overall goal of these REAs is to provide information that supports planning and analysis for management of certain resources that are unique to a region,” he continues.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) notes, “The REA provides an assessment of the baseline ecological conditions, an evaluation of the current risks from drivers of ecosystem change and a predictive capacity for evaluating future risks.”
The Wyoming Basin REA (WBREA) began collecting data a few years ago and includes a large majority of Wyoming, with the exception of Yellowstone National Park and the eastern edge of the state. Additional lands in Montana, Colorado, Utah and Idaho are included in the REA.
Impacted Wyoming counties include Albany, Big Horn, Carbon, Fremont, Hot Springs, Johnson, Lincoln, Natrona, Park, Sheridan, Sublette, Sweetwater, Uinta and Washakie Counties.
“The Wyoming Basin Eco-region encompasses approximately 133,656 square kilometers and some of the highest-quality wildlife habitats remaining in the Intermountain West,” adds USGS.
Developing an REA
“When we develop these assessments, we identify the area first,” Griffith explains. “Then we develop management questions that are developed by BLM and other agency partners.”
The management questions identify the management concerns for the region.
“Additionally, we identify the conservation elements that we want to identify and analyze those elements,” he continues.
The WBREA looks at a number of fish, amphibians, birds, mammals and plants.
These species include native cutthroat trout, northern leatherside chub, flannelmouth and bluehead suckers, roundtail chub, sauger, boreal toad, great basin spadefoot, plains spadefoot, greater sage grouse, golden eagle, bald eagle, ferruginous hawk, sagebrush-obligate songbirds, pygmy rabbit, mule deer, pronghorn, elk, aspen, five-needle pine assemblage, pinyon-juniper and riparian plants.
“We identify those species that we may have concerns about or that may be impacted by a change agent,” Griffith continues.
After identifying target species to assess, the BLM defined a series of “change agents,” or actions that could influence ecosystem changes across the west.
Change agents include solar projects, massive wind energy or other renewable energy development, oil and gas development and natural disasters like large wildfires or invasive species spread.
“When we were first discussing those change agents, we had a discussion about whether livestock grazing had the potential impacts on these conservation elements,” comments Griffith. “Some people wanted to include livestock grazing, but we were not in favor of that for the WBREA.”
Because grazing is regulated on the local level, it was not included in the WBREA.
After species and change agents are identified, Griffith says that a series of databases and various information sources are compiled to obtain information on the distribution of species throughout the region.
After contracting the USGS to develop the plan, Griffith notes that they began to pull together analyses and compile information into the WBREA. BLM Natural Resource Specialist Robert Means is leading the project for BLM.
Currently, the document is slated to be completed by January of 2014.
“The REA is a geospatial tool that we can use,” he says. “It is a geospatial snapshot in time that looks at the change agents we have identified and the potential impacts we see on certain identified resources.”
The WBREA provides information at a certain point in time.
“The intent was never to redo these plans. If need be, we can update them, however,” Griffith adds. “The WBREA will be very useful now and for several years into the future.”
The document, however, is not a decision document and is used solely as an information document.
“We can take this information and give it to our land use planning teams to use in the development of land use plans,” Griffith notes. “This document will help us to understand the plant and animal species that are in the region, and we access databases to verify that.”
The information can then be utilized by a wide variety of parties in land use planning. Because the document is publicly available, landowners across the region and will be able to utilize the data.
While Griffith emphasizes that the document is only an information document and does not lay out any action plan, there is concern throughout the state with the effort.
Big Horn County Commissioner Keith Grant notes that he is concerned that there has been little notification of the effort to cooperators of BLM.
“When we casually look at the plan, it does not have the appearance of being onerous,” comments Natrona County Commissioner Forrest Chadwick. “The big thing for us is that there are no ‘boots on the ground.’”
Chadwick explains that because the document is being compiled from existing resources, there is worry that the information could be incorrect.
At the same time, he adds that the plan is not cast in stone, but rather, it is a document that can be changed.
“The REA can be changed without an elaborate process, so as we see or recognize inaccuracies, we can tell the BLM,” he says. “As I understand, we will still be able to make changes after the document is finalized.”
“We want people to know about this document,” Chadwick adds. “If the public has questions, we want to know about them, and we want to hear the public’s concerns.”