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Sage grouse management plans scientifically flawed

NCBA and PLC write to regulatory agencies about shortfalls in current restrictive resource management plans.

Implementation of restrictive resource management plans is disproportionately affecting farmers and ranchers, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) and the Public Lands Council (PLC) are going on the record with a new letter that identifies some of the shortfalls concerning how “off track” these plans are for the land owners.

One year after the the U.S. Department of Interior announced that a listing under the Endangered Species Act for the greater sage grouse was not warranted and implemented restrictive resource management plans for the species, PLC and NCBA submitted a report to the agencies citing concerns with the methodology used.

Ethan Lane, PLC executive director and NCBA executive director of federal lands, noted that recent studies have shown little or no correlation between sage grouse nest success and the requirements set out by the agencies.

“The threats to sage grouse habitat remain wildfire and land development, both of which are mitigated by proper livestock grazing,” Lane pointed out. “One of the most restrictive and burdensome requirements set out by the agencies through the sage grouse resource management plans is the arbitrary stubble height requirement. To say that grass height alone can predict whether or not a sage grouse nest will be successful is not accurate and is based on flawed methodology.”

Lane explained that the 7 in. requirement is of great concern, and it appears that the regulations “got the science wrong” when it comes to the methodology not quantifying the grass height and correlation with sage grouse nest survival.

The report points to recent studies showing that the assessments of stubble height required by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are incorrect. These studies show that the timing of grass height measurements in relation to nest predation are fundamentally flawed and are not indicative of nesting success.

“Grass height measurements for successful nests are usually conducted in late spring, when the (sage grouse) eggs have successfully hatched and the grass is taller,” Lane said. “Contrarily, predation of nests often happens closer to the time the eggs are laid in early spring, when the grasses are still growing. Grass height alone has little impact on the success or failure of sage grouse nesting, yet these requirements put intense pressure on grazing rotation and the long-term health of the range.”

Repeated studies clearly show that grasses respond best to intensively managed grazing that focuses heavily on timing and recovery. A managed grazing rotation means that a pasture will be grazed early in the season in some years and later in others to ensure optimal recovery and rangeland health.

“The resource management plans make stubble height the driving factor in grazing decisions and impede improving rangeland conditions,” Lane added. “This is counterproductive to sage grouse habitat, as we know healthy rangelands are the largest factor in the success of the species. Moreover, by prioritizing individual data points like grass height over long-term range health, these plans also detract from the conservation of public lands and result in deteriorated rangelands.”

PLC is calling on the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to provide clear instruction at the field level that livestock grazing is not a significant threat, that livestock grazing should not be held to a standard that is not ecologically possible in some sites and that reducing numbers and utilization of public lands will only increase the fuel load.

Lane said ranchers’ conservation practices are irreplaceable and play an important role in efforts to preserve threatened species. However, ranchers are also the “easiest to regulate because of their big footprint in the West,” he noted, and they’ve become the “target of opportunity.” His group wants to make sure ranchers don’t become the first place regulatory agencies turn to “satisfy environmental groups.”

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