Senate looks at federal sage grouse management

Hearing looks at impact to successful, ongoing state management in relation to federal sage grouse programs.

The Senate energy and natural resources subcommittee on public lands, forests and mining held an oversight hearing Tuesday on federal sage grouse plans and their impact on the successful, ongoing state management of the species.

In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) said whether talking about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) planning success or sage grouse conservation across the 11 western states, “there is significant opposition on the ground to federal action that advocates broad, sweeping policy direction mandated by Washington,” he said. “These one-size-fits-all policies cripple public access to public lands and disenfranchise those who have a vested interest in healthy resources.”

Barrasso added, “The use of best science that reflects true habitat is good for wildlife, recreationalists, livestock and other land users, as well as sage grouse.”

Brenda Richards, an Owyhee County, Ida., rancher and president of the Public Lands Council, testified on behalf of the council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. that any federal management plan must first recognize the essential contribution of grazing to conservation.

“Ranchers across the west have a vested interest not just in the health of their livestock but in the rangelands that support their herds and the wildlife that thrive alongside them,” Richards said. “The businesses they operate form the economic nucleus of many rural communities, providing jobs and opportunities where they wouldn’t exist otherwise. Additionally, ranchers often serve as first responders in emergency situations across vast, remote stretches of unoccupied federal lands. Simply put, public lands ranchers are an essential element of strong communities, healthy economies and productive rangelands across the West.”

Roughly 22,000 ranchers steward approximately 250 million acres of federal land and 140 million acres of adjacent private land all across the West. With as much as 80% of productive sage grouse habitat on private lands adjacent to federal permit ground, this makes private partnership essential in increasing sage grouse numbers. However, concern remains that BLM is ignoring local stakeholder input.

“Items such as focal areas, mandatory stubble height requirements and withdrawals of permits impose radically severe and unnecessary management restrictions on this vast area in opposition to proven strategies,” Richards said. “Rather than embracing grazing as a resource and tool for conservation benefit, these plan amendments impose arbitrary restrictions to satisfy requirements for newly minted objectives such as focal areas and net conservation benefit. Wildfire, invasive species and infrastructure are the major threats to sage grouse habitat, and they are all most effectively managed through grazing.”

According to the latest data from the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies reported in the August 2015 "Greater Sage Grouse Population Trends: An Analysis of Lek Count Databases 1965-2015," the number of male grouse counted on leks range-wide went from 43,397 in 2013 to 80,284 in 2015. That’s a 63% increase in the past two years and contributes to a minimum breeding population of 424,645 birds, which does not include grouse populations on unknown leks.

“The results of these voluntary, local conservation efforts around the West are undeniable: Habitat is being preserved, and the sage grouse populations are responding,” Richards said. “Proper grazing specifically addresses the biggest threats to sage grouse habitat, while reduced grazing allows these threats to compound. To arbitrarily restrict grazing when it’s needed most is a recipe for failure. Local input and decades of successful, collaborative conservation efforts must be the starting point for future federal involvement, not an afterthought, as it is now being treated.”

Public lands ranchers encourage the BLM and federal agencies to work with them to continue to conserve and protect sage grouse habitat.

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