Predators, wildfire not only threat to sage grouse

By Thomas Mitchell

On Dec. 27, 2011, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, without any hearings, public notice or warning, the Bureau of Land Management issued its “Greater Sage-Grouse Interim Management Policies and Procedures” with the stated goal of conserving sage grouse habitat and populations to reduce the likelihood of the bird being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The 8,000-word “interim” document is a nearly impenetrable compendium of bureaucratese and vague directions that can be interpreted in any way one is so inclined.

Just three months after the guidelines were issued, using the sage grouse as its excuse, the BLM slashed the number of acres to be auctioned for lease for oil and natural gas exploration in the Ely and Elko districts from 133,000 acres to only 72,000 acres — halving the potential economic benefit to the area.

Congressman Mark Amodei immediately blasted that decision as short-sighted and irrational, saying, “The sage-grouse are not threatened by energy projects or mining operations, which comprise less than 1 percent of Nevada’s land area. Such delays needlessly halt conventional and renewable energy projects that can create jobs and power the growth of Nevada’s economy.”

It was pointed out at the time that the biggest threats to the grouse are wildfire and predators, not drillers and miners.

Though those interim guidelines carry an expiration date of Sept. 31, 2013, remember the words of economist Milton Friedman, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

Meanwhile, county commissioners across the range of the sage grouse have been grousing about roads being closed and thousands of acres being removed from public economic use for the sake of the sage grouse.

Another front in the battle was opened recently by a liberal conservation group called the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), which filed a federal lawsuit in Idaho claiming the BLM’s Ely district is not doing enough to protect the chicken-sized bird with the flashy mating rituals. The suit is one in a long series by this group.

WWP describes its mission on its website as “to influence and improve public lands management in 8 western states with a primary focus on the negative impacts of livestock grazing on 250,000,000 acres of western public lands.”

The newest lawsuit accuses the BLM of allowing the construction or reconstruction of over 400 miles of fences, drilling of water wells and constructing reservoirs, pipelines and livestock watering facilities “in direct contradiction to BLM’s own management guidelines, policies and other provisions designed to protect and enhance sage-grouse populations and habitat.”

The suit claims that just about any use of the land is detrimental to the grouse.

“The abundance and distribution of Greater sage-grouse have declined dramatically in North America,” the WWP lawyers write. “The destruction, fragmentation, and degradation of sagebrush habitats over past decades — including through the effects of livestock grazing and grazing related infrastructure, vegetation treatments, energy and oil and gas development and associated infrastructure, and other factors — have caused substantial declines in greater sage-grouse populations and range reduction of about 44% from their estimated historic range.”

Actually, the opposite is true. An ornithologist by the name of Robert Ridgeway surveyed Nevada’s bird population shortly after the Civil War. Though he spied sage grouse, he said, “we saw it so seldom that little was learned of its habits, particularly during the breeding season. It came under our notice only late in summer and during the autumn …”

Few mentions were made of the birds until the 1880s when ranchers began to develop watering resources for their sheep and cattle and killed off predators.

A reduction in grazing on federal land in recent decades fueled a rapid increase in wildfires that destroy sage grouse habitat. Prior to 1980 fewer than 25,000 acres of wildfires occurred each year in Nevada. Since then the BLM and Forest Service have cut cattle grazing in half and sheep grazing by 80 percent. It is not uncommon now to have three-quarters of a million acres of Nevada burn in a year.

Rather than killing economic activity on public lands, the BLM should be closely monitoring a sage grouse conservation experiment at the 15,000-acre Devils Gate Ranch in Elko County.

The ranch, in cooperation with the county, is reducing wildfire fuel with livestock grazing and aggressively pursuing predators, killing approximately 200 ravens, coyotes, badgers and red fox so for this year.

Whose method do you think will save sage grouse?

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing thomasmnv@yahoo.com. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

© 2013 The Ely Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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