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BLM: Act now to protect grouse or lose development rights later

The federal government’s plan to protect a plump, chicken-like bird, the greater sage grouse, is not yet final, but one agency is already critical in the effort.

The stewardship of 50 million acres of sagebrush country managed by the Bureau of Land Management could help keep the bird off the Endangered Species list. It could also keep large portions of Idaho and the American West open for grazing and energy development.

That’s according to several wildlife biologists speaking on proposed BLM plans to help preserve the habitat of the greater sage grouse. They spoke on a Thursday conference call hosted by Pew Charitable Trusts.

“To states like Idaho and Nevada, the management of BLM lands (is) absolutely crucial to the success of conserving sage grouse,” said Jack Connelly, the principal wildlife research biologist at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The greater sage grouse once had an expansive historical range across Idaho and the American West. After decades of habitat loss, they are in danger of becoming listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015.

That classification, under the federal Endangered Species Act, would mandate additional environmental and habitat protection, which could shut down millions of acres of the American West to energy exploration and grazing. Stakeholders, public and private, are working to bolster sage grouse numbers to prevent such a ruling next year.

The Bureau of Land Management is the single largest land manager of sage grouse habitat with about 50 million acres of sagebrush land under its wing, says Ken Rait, a director of Pew’s U.S. public lands project.

The vast majority of the 12 million acres that the agency manages in Idaho is sage grouse habitat, said Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokeswoman in Idaho.

Gardetto called wildfires the number one threat to the sage grouse in Idaho, particularly in the southern part of the state.

“Fire has changed a lot of sage grouse habitat and it continues to be a major issue,” she said.

Matt Holloran, an ecologist with Wyoming Wildlife Consultants, said the BLM needs to account for invasive species like cheatgrass that can degrade the sagebrush habitat.

“The science supports the BLM developing a coordinated management plan to fight invasive species across the West,” he said.

Protecting the sage grouse’s breeding area from human activity is also critical, says Terry Riley, a director of conservation policy at The Grouse Partnership, an advocacy group.

“We would hope the BLM would actually create minimal disturbance around those green areas so that nesting and brood-rearing is highly successful,” Riley said.

With the listing from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service looming, the BLM must submit plans on how the agency will conserve greater sage grouse in each of 15 regions in several Western states. Each region has its own proposed plan.

The BLM’s Gardetto said that the agency has already started the process of adding wildfire containment safeguards, known as fuel breaks, to Idaho’s sagebrush country.

A fuel break is a strip of land whose vegetation has been modified to control or diminish the spread of fire, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency also active on sage grouse conservation.

“When we do get these huge fires that sweep across the landscape, we’ll put in a fuel break so when the fire does reach the fuel break, it gives firefighters a chance to put it out,” she said.

Gardetto also said the agency’s efforts can be helped by rangeland fire protection associations comprised of local ranchers trained to help contain fires.

Final drafts for each region’s plan, including the plan for the Idaho and southwestern Montana region, must be submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service by early 2015.

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