Thursday, June 28, 2012

A look at the work of Idaho's Sage Grouse Task Force

Editor's note: On June 29, Governor Otter released the State of Idaho’s Draft Alternative for Sage Grouse Management for a two-week public comment period. 

The Draft Alternative builds upon and adds details to the Task Force recommendations discussed in this blog, which was published on June 28. To view the Draft Alternative and the Task Force recommendations, go to:

The Nature Conservancy is preparing specific recommendations drawn from the task force’s work to ensure the State’s plan effectively conserves sage grouse and their habitats.

Greater sage grouse strutting on a lek. Photo by Sara Sheehy.

Headlines about Idaho’s new conservation strategy for greater sage grouse have attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks.  With declining populations in 11 western states, the sage grouse could become protected under the Endangered Species Act. This potential listing has put the bird under intense public attention. ESA regulations could profoundly affect economic and land use activities in the bird’s sagebrush steppe habitat, which includes 15 million acres in Idaho ­– more than a quarter of the land in the state.
Last March Governor Butch Otter created a sage grouse task force and gave it a daunting assignment – craft a conservation plan grouse strong enough to avoid an ESA listing, involve impacted industries and interests, and ensure sage grouse habitat on public lands remains available for multiple uses.
Will Whelan, Director of Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy’s Idaho Chapter, served as one of two task force members representing conservation interests – along with John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League.  Other members represented defined interests, including livestock grazing, electrical utilities, mining, hunting, county government, and the Legislature.  Two members represented the public at large. 
“It was one of the most interesting and challenging assignments in my 27-year career in environmental policy and conservation,” said Whelan. “I have to admit that I had doubts about whether the task force would succeed. Our sixteen members had strikingly different opinions and very little time to master a complex subject.”
But, three months of intense meetings and discussions paid off.  The task force members took their task seriously.  They knew that a weak plan would simply fail to pass muster with the federal agencies that manage public lands and implement the ESA.  “The task force members really strived to balance their economic interests with the real need to protect sage grouse.  By the end, the task force became more than the sum of its parts,” said Whelan.
While not perfect or complete in every detail, the task force recommendations set a sound course for sage grouse conservation in Idaho.  The task force report lays out dozens of measures, including limiting new transmission lines, energy facilities, and other development in high quality sage grouse habitat, strengthening efforts to fight fire and invasive weeds, and ensuring public lands livestock grazing is managed to meet sage grouse habitat objectives.
The task force focused much of its effort on identifying the high quality sage grouse habitat in Idaho and drafting policies that give priority attention to the most important areas.  The task force recommended that sage grouse habitat be divided into core, important, and general sage grouse zones.
Lands that are especially productive sage grouse were proposed for designation as “core habitat.”  This zone covers one-third of acres occupied by sage grouse in Idaho but includes two thirds of the sage grouse leks (male dancing grounds).  The task force quickly grasped that protecting these strongholds is the key to the long-term survival of sage grouse.  The task force suggested strong restrictions on development of new infrastructure such as roads, transmission lines, and energy facilities on public lands within core habitat.  This area would also be a priority for firefighting, weed control, grazing management, and habitat restoration activities.
The “important habitat” zone covers a bit less than one-third of sage grouse habitat in Idaho and has about one-quarter of the leks in the state.  The task force understood that protecting the important habitat will help maintain the sage grouse populations that breed there, connect the core habitat zones, and protect areas used by migrating sage grouse.  The policies governing development in important habitat, while more flexible than in core habitat, would limit sage grouse impacts from new construction and require developers to replace the value of lost habitat by completing restoration projects. 
The “general habitat” zone covers over five million acres but is estimated to support just 10 percent of the leks and five percent of the birds in Idaho.  Accordingly, this zone has the most flexible policies.  New infrastructure development will have to include practices that minimize harm to sage grouse and may be required to mitigate for impacts.  
The task force recommendations are available on the Department of Fish and Game’s website:
The Office of Governor Otter is currently reviewing the task force’s recommendations and will soon ask for the public comment to comment on the sage grouse strategy. 
“The Nature Conservancy plans to stay involved,” Whelan explains.  “The task force did a good job of charting a course for conservation, but many key details still need to be filled-in.  Moreover, the tight deadlines that we operated under meant we had to focus primarily on actions on federal public lands.  We think the State of Idaho also should develop a list of actions by willing private parties, local governments, and the State of Idaho that complement the Task Force’s recommendations. We will continue to advocate for clear and meaningful actions that will protect the bird and its native sagebrush habitats. ”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The task force signed on to absolute nonsense. To believe that livestock have no effect on sage grouse or their habitat is malpractice. The following is completely untrue and anyone who signed on to these recommendations should be ashamed.

No studies exist that directly relate livestock grazing systems or stocking rates to sage-grouse abundance or productivity. Most concerns about grazing effects on sage-grouse are focused on local conditions (e.g., riparian issues, heavy use at water troughs) but what sage-grouse respond to and are affected by are conditions at the larger landscape. Therefore, grazing should be viewed as a landscape stressor with monitoring and management actions conducted at appropriate scales. Accordingly, the FWS does not consider livestock grazing in general as a threat to the species. Only where management issues are documented over time does this activity rise to the level of a secondary threat.
Unfortunately, assessing effects of livestock grazing at relatively large spatial scales is very difficult due to a lack of adequate control sites and a lack of understanding of sagebrush systems prior to introduction of livestock (Knick et al 2011). Most research has been conducted in the presence of grazing. This lack of knowledge of grazing in a landscape context complicates efforts to develop meaningful recommendations for grazing practices in sage-grouse habitat. However, numerous studies have been published providing detailed information on characteristics of sage-grouse seasonal habitats (Knick and Connelly 2011). These studies provide insight on heights and cover of sagebrush and herbaceous plants needed for productive habitats (Connelly et al. 2000).