With No Protections for Western Bird, Focus Is on Land-Use | us news

With No Protections for Western Bird, Focus Is on Land-Use

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

As other GOP leaders hail sage grouse being off endangered list, Utah politicians say it’s a ploy for control in West.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Before the applause faded from the U.S. government’s announcement that there would be no endangered species protections for the greater sage grouse, the criticism began over wide-reaching federal conservation plans meant to protect the bird’s habitat across 11 Western states. These provisions, which came in the form of numerous land-use plan amendments, were necessary to justify keeping sage grouse off the list of threatened species, federal wildlife officials said.CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — People in the state with the most sage grouse and energy development in their habitat mostly welcomed Tuesday’s announcement by the Interior Department that the birds don’t need protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The land-use plans were released Tuesday after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said additional federal protections weren’t needed for the ground-dwelling bird that’s seen its habitat shrink due to oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activity. The decision means Wyoming’s coal, oil, gas, uranium and livestock industries won’t have to live with the possibility of strict limits to their business out in the sagebrush country. “It provides a path forward for development.

The decision was a rare one hailed by both environmentalists and the energy industry as good news – for both the bird and the Western states it calls home. Rob Bishop, who called it “a cynical ploy” and “a de facto listing.” “Don’t be fooled,” said Bishop, a Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “With the stroke of a pen, the Obama administration’s oppressive land management plan is the same as a listing. But critics from each side of the political spectrum quickly denounced the move, concentrating on new plans signed in conjunction with the decision that will guide the use of 67 million acres of public lands. It doesn’t mean no limits: Along with announcing the decision, Interior unveiled land-use plans to protect sage grouse habitat on almost 28,000 square miles of U.S. The new command-and-control federal plan will not help the bird, but it will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama administration.” Jewell praised steps and investments made by Utah and the other states, but said more must be done to preserve not just the bird — once so numerous its flocks darkened the sky and fed pioneers — but also the sagebrush landscapes on which rural economies and so many other species depend, including mule deer and pronghorn. “This vast landscape is suffering death by a thousand cuts.

Tuesday’s announcement reversed a 2010 finding that the bird was headed toward possible extinction as development cut into its vast but shrinking sagebrush habitat ranging from California to the Dakotas. The Bureau of Land Management is putting the finishing touches on more than 90 land-use strategies to steer mining, drilling, and cattle grazing away from areas where sage grouse are likely to congregate.

And development is fragmenting the land,” Jewell said in a video message. “By many measures, the sage grouse serves as the pulse of this imperiled ecosystem. That includes commitments of more than $750 million from government and outside interest groups to buy up conservation easements and restore the bird’s range. But experts say that it will be up to local officials and businesses to ensure that the dozens of different plans are giving the bird robust protection.

Those local constituencies “found some space to chart a path of real balance, and those are the people who are going to be responsible for seeing this through to implementation,” says Mr. Critically, the boundaries and restrictions in the federal priority habitat pretty well line up with Wyoming’s sage grouse “core area” strategy in place since 2010. The federal holdings make up more than a third of the animal’s total range and do not include millions of acres of private land that will be restored or protected, agency officials said. Tuesday’s move will likely dilute a political liability for Democrats heading into the 2016 election season, since a sage grouse listing would have resulted in onerous land-use restrictions. It had until Sept. 30 to make a decision on the bird, which has seen its population has plummet from several million to between 200,000 and 500,000, according to federal officials.

Instead, top officials and politicians heralded what they hope is a new era of collaboration and trust among state, private and federal land managers to protect imperiled plants and animals. Over the last century, they lost roughly half their habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that’s encouraging wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states. While ESA protection can rescue a species from the brink of extinction, it often comes at a cost, with the local economy burdened by onerous emergency regulations. But their numbers dwindled to less than 500,000 and their range has receded thanks to degradation of sagebrush habitat from grazing, mineral development and encroachment by conifer trees and cheat grass. In July, Mead told Interior officials he worried the federal planning to help sage grouse played down potential restrictions on livestock grazing in Wyoming.

Erik Molvar with the WildEarth Guardians said the planning effort began with promise, but the exceptions, modifications and waivers they allow mean the protections could evaporate. “What seems to be coming out the other end of the sausage grinder is a weak collection of compromises that will not and cannot conserve the species,” Molvar said. But Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, argued these plans allow too many loopholes and exemptions to shield sage grouse from the impacts of energy development. And it could be applied to other issues, as well. “This could be a model for how we look at recreation in central Idaho, or how we look at watershed management across state and federal lands in Colorado,” says Nada Culver, a senior director at The Wilderness Society. A Wyoming-based representative of WildEarth Guardians, Erik Molvar, criticized the plans as inadequate to protect them from development, grazing and invasive weeds. At the center of the fracas has been Wyoming, home to roughly 40 percent of the bird’s population and a hub of fossil fuel development, with huge potential for wind energy and uranium mines.

Some energy companies say the plan is too restrictive. “We’ve seen things addressed federally or state by state, field office by field office,” says Ms. Department of Agriculture also has worked with ranchers to improve habitat by removing fences, uprooting invasive trees and buying conservation easements to keep the land from being altered. As state wildlife agencies have shown, sage grouse populations have not only rebounded recently but are stable over the long-term,” said Kathleen Sgamma, governmental affairs director for the Western Energy Alliance.

He complained the feds have rejected Utah’s sage grouse plan in favor of a “one-size-fits-all approach,” thus jeopardizing further conservation efforts and economic development. “These federal land use plan amendments are unnecessarily restrictive in nature and devalue Utah’s management plan and the conservation commitments from private landowners,” Herbert wrote in a formal response. “I have always believed that, as a state, Utah is better positioned to manage our sage grouse population than the federal government.

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