BLM Directs Implementation of Sage-Grouse Plans

BLM Directs Implementation of Sage-Grouse Plans

On September 1, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released guidance clarifying implementation of key components of sage-grouse land use plans, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. These plans, that were finalized on September 22, 2015, updated 98 BLM and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land use plans across the West and were a key factor in the decision to not list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The seven Instruction Memorandums relate to provisions impacting oil and gas leasing and development, grazing, and the collection and use of land management data.

“Consistent with our unprecedented cooperation in developing the greater sage-grouse plans, the implementation policies we are releasing today were developed in coordination with our partners in the states and interested stakeholders,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said. “These Instruction Memorandums respond to state and stakeholder desires to see clear and consistent application of our management activities across the western greater sage-grouse states while providing the flexibility needed to respond to local situations and concerns. Although each policy guides the specifics of a single issue in great detail, they all share the same goal of effectively conserving the West’s sagebrush sea for the benefit of the people and animals who depend on it.”

The new Instruction Memorandums (IMs) are intended to provide more detailed information for field staff who will be implementing the plans on the landscape. For oil and gas development, the staff is directed to avoid or limit new surface disturbance in priority habitat management areas and sagebrush focal areas. Specifically, the IM encourages field offices: “to work collaboratively with relevant state and federal agencies as well as stakeholders to develop strategies and incentives to encourage and prioritize leasing and development outside of greater sage-grouse habitats.” However, the IM does not prohibit leasing or development in general or priority habitat management areas. Instead, it attempts clarify how oil and gas leasing and development could move forward in designated sage-grouse habitats “by applying prioritizing sequencing, stipulations, required design features, and other management measures to achieve the conservation objectives and provisions.”

For grazing management, there are two IMs focused on permitting and evaluation of grazing thresholds. The first IM provides guidance on how to prioritize the review of grazing permits in order to focus management activities in areas with the highest quality habitat for breeding sage-grouse. According to the guidance: “The decision to prioritize in this way does not indicate that grazing is more of a management concern than other uses of the public lands, or that grazing is an incompatible use in any given area, but rather reflects a decision to prioritize limited resources to ensure grazing is properly managed in those areas most important to the greater sage-grouse.” The second grazing IM is intended to provide guidance on analyzing thresholds and responses for grazing management in sagebrush focal areas and priority habitat management areas. The goal is to provide defined management actions within the permitting process so that when grazing thresholds are met, adjustments can be made more quickly since they have already gone through environmental review.

The remaining IMs focus on adaptive management triggers, disturbance tracking, effectiveness monitoring, and providing a habitat assessment framework. These overarching documents outline specific metrics that BLM field offices will use to evaluate the general landscape health in priority sage-grouse areas. By providing details on how to gather and share key data on habitat quality, disturbances, and how effective management efforts are, state and federal managers will have more timely tools to meet management objectives. Specific guidance for how data gathered using the BLM’s Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM) strategy will help to assess whether land use plan goals are being achieved.

The release of these guidance documents will help field office personnel to fully and effectively implement the sage-grouse land use plans. While generally receiving support from conservation organizations, some environmental organizations have expressed concerns that the guidance documents are too flexible. At the same time, groups representing the energy industry and some members of Congress believe that the plans and their guidance documents will hamstring use of public lands.

There have been several efforts in Congress to undermine the land use plans. In addition to stand-alone legislation, language in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act would give state governors the ability to preempt conservation plans on federal public lands. Similar language is not included in the Senate version of the bill so whether the provision will be enacted will depend on negotiations during conference of the must-pass bill.

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September 20, 2016