USFWS to make decision on listing next year
by Samantha White
It was standing room only at the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center, Tuesday, Jan. 7, as hundreds attended a public meeting held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to discuss the draft Oregon Sub-Regional Greater Sage Grouse Resource Management Plan (RMP) Amendment/Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
According to the BLM’s website, an RMP is a “comprehensive land use plan” that is used to “guide management decisions and actions on public lands.”
An EIS is a detailed analysis used to insure that policies and goals defined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are used by federal agencies in ongoing programs and actions.
Brendan Cain, district manager of the Burns District of the BLM, explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) — which determined that Greater Sage Grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act in March 2010 — called for amendments to the BLM’s current RMP for Greater Sage Grouse habitat. He added that proposed amendments to the BLM’s RMP are intended to show the agency’s long-term commitment to conservation and habitat restoration measures for the species. However, Cain added that the BLM also hopes to keep private landowners in mind.
“We hope to maintain the widest possible range of options for managing public lands and for our neighboring landowners,” Cain said.
He added that, because the Greater Sage Grouse is currently on the candidate list for future regulatory action, federal agencies, states, tribes and private landowners have the opportunity to continue working cooperatively to conserve the species and restore its habitat.
BLM Wildlife Biologist Glenn Frederick explained that the candidate classification means that the sage grouse population has been declining in numbers over the years.
“The bird is obviously not in such dire straits that it can’t be hunted and that you don’t see it, but predictions are that it will continue to decline. For that reason, the BLM classified it as a ‘species of concern’ many years ago,” Frederick said.
He added that, because the sage grouse is listed as a candidate now, action needs to be taken to show that the species can be managed without the additional constraints of an Endangered Species Act listing.
“I think we can do that,” Frederick said.
The USFWS has until September 2015 to decide whether Greater Sage Grouse should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Navigating the RMPA/EIS
Holly Orr, BLM planning and environmental coordinator, discussed the range of alternatives presented in the BLM’s draft RMPA/EIS and provided tips for navigating the cumbersome document.
“The first order of business is, if you can’t understand something or you can’t find something, call me. That’s my job, and that’s what you pay me for. I’ll help you through it,” Orr said.
She then explained the various chapters of the document and gave an overview of the proposed alternatives for sage grouse habitat management, which range from A to F.
Alternative A is the no-action alternative. If this alternative is chosen, the BLM will continue to implement its current management strategy. Alternative B is based on the multi-agency National Technical Team (NTT) report, which was created by the National Policy Team. Alternatives C and F are based on public scoping comments that were submitted from a variety of interest groups a couple years ago. Alternative E is based on the 2011 Sage Grouse Conservation and Assessment Strategy that was developed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
“That does not mean it’s the alternative we are definitely going to select,” Orr said regarding the preferred alternative.
She added that public input is being solicited to determine whether changes should be made to the draft RMPA/EIS.
“I want to, not only hear how [the RMPA/EIS] is going to affect you personally, but how will it affect you, your neighbor and the county? That’s the type of information that, once given back, can be incorporated into the final [RMPA/EIS] that will come out to the public and help the decision-maker make a decision,” Orr said.
She added that the decision-maker can take information from various alternatives to make a final decision, or a new alternative can be developed based on comments submitted by the public.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty later asked who the decision-makers will be at the end of the process, and Joan Suther, Oregon Sub-Regional Greater Sage Grouse project manager, replied that, as of right now, the plan is to have the state directors of Oregon and Washington make the final decision.
During the question and answer period, Buck Taylor commented that the maps provided in the draft RMPA/EIS were not specific enough, and he offered suggestions for improving them. He then asked how the public can access more detailed maps.
Suther said detailed maps were available at the meeting, and links to digital versions of these maps are available online. However, she recognized that the digital maps are not easily accessible to everyone, adding that individuals would need to install GIS software on their computers in order to view them.
Later in the meeting, Judge Grasty said that, in order for people to make “good, solid comments,” they need access to interactive maps and hard copies of the draft RMPA/EIS. He explained that people need to be able to look at specific grazing permit allotments, hunting areas, and roads in order to understand what the impacts will be under the various alternatives presented in the document. Grasty said that he can’t commit the other counties, but he can commit Harney County to helping with this effort.
Suther replied that hard copies of the document are “extremely expensive to print,” but said she doesn’t mind printing the copies that are needed.
Orr offered to take a count of people who want hard copies of the draft RMPA/EIS, and reminded those in attendance that CDs are also available.
Suther suggested that interested persons request hard copies of maps from their district contacts.
A member of the public asked if there is a reason for the decline in sage grouse population and whether anything suggested in the draft RMPA/EIS will help stop it.
BLM biologist Frederick replied that there are a myriad of reasons for the decline. However, he said the primary causes in Oregon are wildfires and evasive plant species (such as juniper) that destroy or replace sage brush, which is the staple of the sage grouse’s habitat. He added that predation on hens, chicks and nest is also a major factor.
Frederick said the RMPA/EIS identifies regulatory mechanisms that the BLM can administer (such as managing vegetation, influencing the size of wildfires, restoring areas that were damaged by wildfires, and controlling the location of development) to help address the declining sage grouse population.
Another member of the public asked why sage grouse cannot be raised and hatched in a manner similar to other birds.
Frederick replied that, in order for a capture and release program to work, the sage grouse would need suitable habitat to be released into. He said efforts to release and transplant sage grouse have been unsuccessful because the birds tend to return to the land they originate from, even if their habitat was destroyed.
“For some reason (darn them) they like where they’re from, and they know their neighborhood, and they want to stay there. It’s amazing how, after a fire and everything is gone, they come back to the same spot,” Frederick said.
USFWS Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jeff Dillon added that the species will not reproduce in pens.
The same member of the public asked, “But what do we do about Mother Nature that burns everything up?”
This question was not answered.
Tim Smith commented that very little was included in the draft RMPA/EIS regarding the threat of predators to sage grouse populations.
“There is almost nothing about predation in there, which is a serious problem,” Smith said.
Suther replied that predation is one of the many threats to sage grouse that are listed in the document, but it is not at the top of the list.
Another member of the public asked whether the wolf should be considered a predator to sage grouse, and Dillon replied that not enough data had been collected regarding the threat of wolves on the sage grouse population.
Smith also expressed concern regarding the cost of developing the RMPA/EIS.
“Now, I think it’s pretty clear from the turnout we’ve got here tonight that people are more concerned about the people management aspects of this than they are sage grouse management,” Smith said. “This study was done with tax-payer dollars. I would like to know how many tax-payer dollars went into this to actually implement activities that will harm the economy of the rural parts of Oregon and The West.”
Suther replied that she did not have a specific answer to Smith’s question because it has been a “very broad effort.”
However, she said, “It’s definitely in the millions of dollars.”
Smith asked whether a cost benefit analysis should be considered every time a major decision like this is made.
Suther replied, “Actually, when you’re talking about endangered species, there are some cost benefits, but it’s not always just about the dollars.”
Economic impact on veterans
Harney County Veterans Service Officer Guy McKay had a question about the economic impact that the RMPA/EIS would have on Harney County’s veterans.
BLM Socioeconomic Specialist Stewart Allen replied that the economic impact on veterans was not analyzed in the draft RMPA/EIS.
“The closest that it comes to that type of analysis is what we call Environmental Justice analysis that looks at the affects of the plan on minority and/or low-income populations. And that analysis is there, and one of the findings was that there would be a disproportionate negative impact on low-income residence in Harney County and two other counties,” Allen said.
Barry Anderson said there was a lot of information in the RMPA/EIS, especially in the preferred alternative, detailing what would need to be done in order to monitor sage grouse habitat. He asked how the BLM would fund these activities, considering that many BLM projects are currently underfunded. He added that the agency has not had the funds to manage its wild horse program or replace fences that were destroyed by wildfires.
Suther replied that not a lot of additional monitoring would be required under the preferred alternative, but said there would be some.
Rep. Cliff Bentz asked, “What can these people here do tonight to assist you in reducing the chance of a listing?”
He also asked, “Why is it that your preferred alternative suggest that we not graze cattle?”
He added that the citizens are concerned because they’ve seen reports from the local agricultural research center suggesting that grazing does not have an adverse effect on the sage grouse population.
BLM Rangeland Management Specialist Bob Hopper replied that only some of the proposed alternatives consider livestock reduction. He said these alternatives include Alternatives C (which suggests that no grazing be allowed), D (which is the BLM preferred alternative), and F.
Suther said the preferred alternative “has a minor reduction in grazing.” However, she added that, “It can be a big deal if that minor reduction occurs on your allotment.”
Suther explained that the grazing reduction suggested under Alternative D specifies that certain, researched natural areas containing certain percentages of sage grouse habitat would be closed.
“And it totals about 118,000 acres out of the 10 million acres of sage grouse habitat that we’re talking about,” she said.
In response to Bentz’s questions regarding what people can do to prevent the sage grouse listing, Suther replied that current actions being completed on the ground, such as juniper management, should be showcased.
Dan Haak asked how the alternatives proposed in the RMPA/EIS will affect private lands.
Suther replied, “The decision is specific to BLM lands only. And that’s really important that people hear that and understand that.”
However, later in the meeting, Judge Grasty commented, “When you affect the public ground, these folks are adversely affected, vitally.”
He added that the first page of the draft RMPA/EIS discusses 15 million acres of sage grouse habitat, not 10 million.
“Fifteen million acres would be 5 million acres of private ground,” Grasty said.
Suther replied that the 15 million acres that are mentioned in the draft RMPA/EIS document include the planning area boundary, but she said the actual decision will be made on the 10 million acres of BLM land.
However, she added, “I think we have to make a decision on the private land and the impact to private land owners and the social and economic impact. And we have tried to do that, and I would like to hear some specific recommendations on how we can improve that in your written comment.”
Grasty replied, “I want to give you the specific one, and I guess I would like to hear why it wasn’t considered. There’s an exact parallel with the combination of private and public land that was an economic disaster for the state in the spotted owl. Why can’t that be compared on a social-economic basis? There were tons of studies done afterward on that. And look at the final results of it — we’re out there killing a protected bird…Why aren’t we analyzing the spotted owl, which is such a direct parallel on economic and social?”
Haak, who is a leader of the Open Roads Coalition, also asked how the RMPA/EIS’ proposed alternatives will impact mechanized access in Harney County.
Suther suggested that Haak study the travel management, transportation, and recreation sections of the draft RMPA/EIS.
She added that areas closed to OHV (off-highway vehicles) now would remain closed, and areas within priority sage grouse habitat would become limited to OHV use, meaning that these vehicles would be limited to existing roads and trails.
Ron Copeland, training officer for Harney County Search and Rescue, later asked whether any thought had been given to how the preferred alternative might impact search and rescue efforts, as mechanized equipment is used for rescue operations.
Suther replied that exceptions to the restrictions can be made “case by case.” She added that, “The OHV restriction is not a 100 percent kind of deal.” But added, “The idea would be to avoid the priority sage grouse habitat whenever practical.”
Randy Whitaker, general manager of Harney Electric Cooperative Inc., said it was mentioned that transmission lines could be a problem for sage grouse, but it would cost $500 million to put Harney Electric’s transmission lines underground.
“That’s $400,000 per member out there. That’s a huge economic impact…And we can’t get the funding for that,” he said, adding that losing this source of electricity could be a public safety issue.
“There’s a lot of folks that are very dependent upon this electricity for breathing apparatuses and various other medical supplies,” he said.
Whitaker added that these concerns need to be included in the RMPA/EIS.
Rob Paramore later asked, “What happens when the power is gone? What are you going to do about the transmission lines?” He also asked, “At what point do farmers and ranchers become an endangered species?”
Suther said the specific action discussed in the RMPA/EIS does not require the burial of the lines. However, she said the document does state that, when the transmission lines come up for renewal, there’s an opportunity to determine whether it’s feasible to use some other method.
Fred Flippence, Harney Electric office manager, said Harney Electric has about 63 miles of transmission lines going through sage grouse lek areas that have been identified on the maps.
He said, “Our concern is, what happens when that easement comes up? Who is going to bear that cost? Since I’m the finance guy, I can tell you, we’ve invested about $40 million for our total system in Oregon and Nevada. So when somebody says, ‘Well we’re only going to ask you to do maybe $2 million,’ that’s a very large percentage of a $40 million company.”
In answer to Flippence’s question regarding who would bear the cost, Suther said, “When the right-of-way applicant comes in, if there are mitigation measures that we determine, then they [the applicants] are the ones that have to bear [the cost].”
An electronic version of the draft RMPA/EIS can be viewed at: www.blm.gov/or/energy/opportunity/sagebrush.php.
Anyone interested in submitting comments may do so electronically by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments can also be mailed to: BLM-Greater Sage-Grouse DEIS 1220 S.W. 3rd Ave. Portland, OR 97204.
Public comments will be accepted until Feb. 20.