BLM releases Oregon sub-region management plan draft impact statement
By Debby Schoeningh
For the Capital Press
BAKER CITY, Ore. — Predator control needs to be part of the plan to protect the greater sage grouse, ranchers said at a recent meeting.
“If this is truly about the bird, make it about the bird, not an environmental push to exclude livestock and people,” said Fred Phillips at the Jan. 20 Baker County Natural Resources Advisory Committee meeting. To that end, he said, if the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t address the No. 1 problem facing sage grouse — predators — other preservation strategies will not have an effect on the bird’s population.
Phillips, a Baker County rancher and BLM grazing permit holder, represented the interests of area ranchers in the committee’s discussion with Vale BLM District Manager Don Gonzales regarding the Oregon Sub-Region Greater Sage-Grouse Management Plan Draft EIS that was recently released.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the greater sage-grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the agency has determined that proposing the species for protection is precluded by the need to take action on other species facing more immediate extinction threats. The bird lives in 11 states and two Canadian provinces.
Gonzales said the current plan doesn’t address wildlife predation of sage grouse because there is nothing BLM can do in that regard. And, he said, the sage grouse does not lend itself to breeding in captivity so re-population of the bird has to occur in breeding areas, which increases the need to preserve their habitat.
“As the habitat goes, so will the birds,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife calls for maintaining the sage grouse levels at 2003 populations. He said Oregon sage grouse numbers are declining on average by about 3 percent per year. Forty-nine percent of the birds’ habitat is on federal land and encompasses BLM gazing allotments.
The draft plan describes and analyzes alternatives for managing approximately 12 million acres of BLM-administered lands in Oregon and Washington. Areas east of Baker City are considered a “priority habitat” along with portions of Oregon’s Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur and Union counties.
There is a 3 percent allowance cap on private and federal ground limiting disturbance in prime sage grouse habitat and breeding areas, meaning no more than 3 percent of the total landscape can be altered.
“This would include all human-caused disturbances except for fire,” said Gonzales. Additions to the landscape such as power lines, woven wire fences and cell towers would be considered human-caused.
“These all take away from the ability to have sage grouse habitat,” he said. “When the disturbance hits 3 percent, there can be no more impact to the property.”
In terms of habitat disturbance, Baker County is already at 2 percent, said Gonzales.
He said other larger habitat areas in Oregon are at 1 percent, Wyoming is at 4 percent and Colorado at 5. There are 11 states involved in the sage grouse issue.
The amount of habitat disturbance would be evaluated every five years to allow BLM to take measures to mitigate their activities. However, he said, they want to avoid imposing activity restrictions on private lands, if possible.
Gonzales said although BLM’s goal is to limit the impact on the sage grouse to avoid having the bird listed, the odds are that if sage grouse are listed as endangered in other states, they will be in Oregon as well.
Gonzales said although no grazing alternatives have to be evaluated in the Sage Grouse Draft EIS, if ranchers utilizing grazing allotments don’t stock an area to capacity, BLM usually doesn’t have a problem with that unless it looks like the land is not being utilized at all. He said on the Idaho side of the Snake River BLM recently took away a couple of allotment grazing privileges because ranchers weren’t using them.
Currently the only Research Natural Area — a monitored ecosystem — on BLM ground in Baker County that is closed to grazing is 203 acres in the Keating Creek area, north of the Powder River. That allotment totals 5,626 acres.
Gonzales said the sage grouse plan will eventually — in about five years — be developed into the Travel Management Plan for the entire BLM Vale District where areas will be labeled “open,” “closed” or “limited.” He said he expects the TMP to take about three years.
He said the Resource Management Plan, which is considered in the EIS, incorporates looking at Baker County’s Virtue Flat area’s full range of variables; this would include the designated off-highway vehicle area and possibly the Powder River Sportsmen’s gun range, which are in grazing allotments and primary grouse habitat.
“We would have a hard time closing these areas because it doesn’t seem to be detrimental to the bird,” he said.
He said background noise doesn’t seem to bother the sage grouse but because of the noise the birds can’t hear predators approaching.
To comment on the draft impact statement
Comments on the Sage Grouse Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be taken until Feb. 20.
There will be another opportunity to comment when the final EIS is released. Vale Bureau of Land Management District Manager Don Gonzales said BLM is shooting for a March 7 release of the final Draft EIS with the comment period for that ending the beginning of May. BLM is required to have the draft available for evaluation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before the end of 2014.
BLM will also develop a restoration plan by December that includes invasive species. Gonzales said that will require them to look at wild horses and burros to determine if they are detrimental to sage grouse. He said they will also be looking at planting sagebrush seed in some primary grouse habitats.
To view the draft, visit www.blm.gov/or/energy/opportunity/sagebrush.php
The final decisions on the BLM Draft will be made by BLM State Director Jerry Perez. However, before he signs off, it will go to Washington for review, and other states affected will submit their drafts at the same time.
Six alternatives in plan
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have identified six alternatives for consideration. Vale BLM District Manager Don Gonzales said BLM has chosen Alternative D as its preferred option.
• Alternative A: A no-action alternative which would retain the management goals, objectives and direction specified in the current resource management plans for the state.
• Alternative B: Analyzes management actions outlined in the multi-agency National Technical Team report, which includes such protections as right-of-way exclusion areas and a fluid mineral leasing closure.
• Alternative C: Analyzes management recommendations submitted by conservation groups, which includes the creation of an Area of Critical Environmental Concern covering approximately 4,547,043 acres of Greater Sage-Grouse habitat and removal of grazing in the planning area.
• Alternative D: Called the Oregon sub-regional alternative, it incorporates local adjustments to the NTT report that were developed with cooperating agencies. The BLM has identified Alternative D as its preferred alternative. Although the BLM has identified a preferred alternative, it will consider the entire range of alternatives when developing the proposed plan.
• Alternative E: Is based on recommendations included in the ODFW Sage-Grouse Conservation and Assessment Strategy (2011), which includes an emphasis of protecting core areas with no development permissible for major surface disturbing activities.
• Alternative F: Analyzes other management recommendations submitted by conservation groups, which includes creation of an Area of Critical Environmental Concern covering approximately 4,040,202 acres of Greater Sage-Grouse habitat and reduced grazing in the planning area.