Forest Service works toward implementation of sage grouse plans in WyomingWritten by Saige Albert
Casper – West-wide, landowners and a public lands permittees are concerned with how sage grouse management plans will be implemented across the landscape. After four months since the decision was made that sage grouse were not warranted for listing, federal agencies are still working to determine how to implement their land use plan amendments.
U.S. Forest Service's (USFS) Wendy Magwire explained that, for the agency, the Region IV Office out of Ogden, Utah has taken the lead for planning in sage grouse habitat in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho and western Wyoming.
Magwire spoke during a Sage Grouse Implementation Team Density Disturbance Calculation Tool workshop in Casper on Jan. 27.
“The land and resource management plan amendments don't apply to all the national forests,” Magwire mentioned. “We have eight national forests and grasslands but not all were amended. This only applies to five of the units.”
The Bridger-Teton, Ashley, Medicine Bow and Cache National Forests, as well as the Thunder Basin National Grasslands are covered under the plan. The amendments do not apply to the Bighorn, Shoshone or Black Hills National Forests.
“The guidance and direction also only applies to national forests with sage grouse habitat,” Magwire continued.
One area of focus for USFS is habitat, including habitat designated as sagebrush focal areas (SFAs).
“SFA was a designation that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified throughout the West,” explained Magwire. “It is the best of the best habitat that is available for sage grouse and needed for persistence of Greater sage grouse over the long term.”
High quality sagebrush habitats include areas that are largely federally owned and that may be adjacent to protected areas, such as areas with easements and Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs).
“SFAs are a subset of priority habitat management areas,” Magwire said. “On national forest lands, we have very few SFAs. There are only 3,300 acres, and they are all on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The rest of the forests do not have this category.”
Further, Magwire noted that priority habitat management areas (PHMAs) are primary habitat for sage grouse where conservation is highly focused.
“PHMAs are made up of two designations that correspond to the Wyoming core area strategy,” she said. “These are the core habitat management areas and the connectivity habitat management areas. SFAs are a subset of priority habitat management areas.”
In Wyoming’s national forests lands, 381,000 acres are designated as priority habitat management areas. Of that, 309,000 are core, 69,0000 are connectivity habitat and the remaining 3,300 acres are SFAs.
Most USFS lands are described as General Habitat Management Areas.
“Our standards and guidelines don’t apply to just the priority habitats,” Magwire mentioned. “They also apply to general habitat.”
Standards and guidelines
“There is a lot of direction in the USFS plans,” Magwire continued. “In our land use plans, we use a series of desired conditions, what we want the habitat to look like and how it should function.”
USFS provides standards and guidelines for a number of management actions, including density disturbance, interagency cooperation and noise, among others.
Standards and guidelines both provide direction as to how those objectives should be achieved, with different levels of obligation.
“Standards must be followed,” she explained. “The only way we can not follow standards is if we make a forest plan amendment.”
On the other hand, Magwire said, “Guidelines do allow more flexibility for site-specific projects, but we can’t brush them aside. We are required to meet the intent of guidelines.”
For example, if a particular proposal seeks to disturb and remove sagebrush inside a lek buffer, if the intent is to improve habitat over time, the guideline can still be met.
“We acknowledge the short-term impacts and long-term benefits,” Magwire commented. “We also acknowledge that guidelines may be inconsistent in the short-term.”
Interagency cooperation efforts are among the important pieces of USFS management, and Magwire said, “We will participate with BLM to establish a conservation team to look at and develop a mitigation strategy.”
Over time, she continued that mitigation must be targeted and approached in a methodical manner, rather than as a haphazard process.
“This really is an effort to look at a broader landscape and look at where we have priorities for mitigation and restoration of habitat.”
An interagency mitigation strategy will be developed by September 2016, she added.
An interagency group to identify adaptive management strategies will also be formed.
“This group will hopefully answer a question about how we will track what is going on,” Magwire said. “The interagency group will be made up of biologists from BLM, USFS, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to be a part of the adaptive management working group.”
The group will look at habitats, populations and lek numbers to show how management decisions are impacting sage grouse populations.
“There are still a lot of things we don’t know about how our management affects sage grouse and what is going on in populations, so this team will help us learn,” she commented, also noting that decisions can be made based on the information learned.
Finally, Magwire noted that implementation of plans will continue to be a driving force of the USFS plans.
“A lot of people spent time and effort in developing these amendments and coming up with conservation strategies and guidance,” she said. “Now we have to implement them, which is a huge task.”
Magwire continued that the effort will include coordination and cooperation with local and state agencies and organizations.
“We have to pay attention to make sure what we are authorizing and managing is consistent with our conservation goals,” Magwire said. “It is going to take a lot of effort, and we are working hard to make sure things stay consistent between the state and federal agencies.”