The public in five Western states has until Jan. 3 to comment on an amended plan for managing U.S. Forest Service land to protect greater sage grouse populations.
USFS hopes the amended plan will be easier to understand and more efficient to carry out than the current version, in effect since 2015, while protecting the grouse’s disturbance-sensitive sagebrush nesting habitat to the same extent. The streamlined plan will make compliance less complex for ranchers, officials said.
Proposed amendments reflect research findings in the past three years and the agency’s desire to better coordinate its large, landscape-scale approach to managing habitat with the states’ plans to manage the species.
The amendments are described in a draft environmental impact statement open to comments from residents of Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.
Grazing plans under the amended version will be less complicated and “prescriptive” than what livestock operators use now, said John Shivik, USFS national sage grouse coordinator based in Ogden, Utah. They will be broader, more site-specific and easier to understand.
“We had guidelines that were very prescriptive and didn’t attack the problem of improper grazing,” he said.
Proposed new guidelines, which would take effect when a grazing permit is renewed or when a problem emerges, will reflect a more comprehensive evaluation of a specific site’s habitat health.
“The biggest thing is to keep the protections to sage grouse (habitat) while encouraging multiple use,” said Shivik, who spoke at an open house Nov. 26 in Boise. States and federal agencies “all want to be looking in the same direction in conserving sage grouse.”
Restored habitat may offset lost habitat, as the current plan allows, said Rob Mickelson, USFS Idaho sage grouse coordinator. The amended version will document invasive species — such as annual cheatgrass that competes strongly with sagebrush and other native plants — in management areas, and spell out how fire and other methods could be used to control them.
The new plan folds current Sagebrush Focal Areas into existing Priority Habitat Management Areas. Mickelson said Idaho deemed SFAs unnecessary in light of the federal priority areas and the state’s own three-tiered classification system for sage grouse habitat.
Recent academic research and USFS monitoring showed proper grazing practices met the sage grouse’s needs overall, he said. Recent research also put to rest the notion that seven inches of perennial grass should stand at the end of nesting season, a requirement for grazing plans that will be eliminated in the revised plan. Sagebrush cover was found to be a much greater factor.
A final environmental-impact statement and draft record of decision are expected in late February, Shivik said. A final record of decision could come in June or July depending on the scope and complexity of objections filed to the final environmental-impact statement, which are due in late April.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has undertaken a similar amendment process.