Greater Sage-grouse Policy Efforts
Rich county sage-grouse conservation plan
From about 2000 to 2005, most Western States with sage-grouse populations began to put together local sage-grouse working groups to develop population-specific conservation plans to accompany each state Fish and Game agency's management plans. The proximate goal of the scores, if not hundreds, of these new local working groups was to augment state management and help bolster sage-grouse population levels, which at that time were almost universally in decline across the range of the species. The ultimate goal was to turn-around these regional and state population declines, so as to avoid possible listing of sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Wild Utah Project, already deeply involved in other conservation and grazing-related issues in Rich County, joined the Rich County Local Working Group in 2004, alongside agency managers and biologists, as well as other local stakeholders. In 2006, the working group issued the Rich County Sage-grouse Conservation Plan, which laid out goals and objectives for habitat management of Rich County sage-grouse populations, and various options and tools to meet those objectives. The plan is still in effect today, and the working group is still meeting regularly as it tries to inform local management and conservation of Rich County's sage-grouse populations.
State sage-grouse Plan Implementation Council
Wild Utah Project also played a role in the development of Utah's state-wide Greater Sage-grouse Conservation Plan, which was finalized in 2013. During this time, many western states issued new or revised sage-grouse management plans, many of which were 'rolled up' from the various local working group conservation plans for different populations (see above). Again, the goal for these plans was similar to those of the local working groups - to establish effective habitat management goals and standards, and implement them, so as to turn around downward trends for sage-grouse. Once Utah's new plan was rolled out, the state put together a Conservation Plan Implementation Council (PIC) to oversee implementation of the Plan (though chiefly on state and private lands, as the plan cannot really dictate land uses or management on federal lands (this is what the federal Land Use Plan Amendments achieved for sage-grouse - see below). The Director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources appointed our director Allison Jones as one of people on the PIC. Allison is still serving today, attending the bi-yearly meetings, and helping to keep conservation promises that have been made for sage-grouse populations in Utah.
SAGE-GROUSE LAND-USE PLAN AMENDMENTS
During a process that started in 2011, the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service began preparing to amend 99 separate federal Land Use Plans to include better sage-grouse habitat protections and management, in order to avoid listing the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. In response, Wild Utah Project teamed with other conservation groups (see list in the document linked below) to offer a proposed alternative for the Environmental Impact Statements (one for each state) that would serve to amend each of the Resource Management Plans. We are pleased to report that our Sage-grouse Recovery Alternative was adopted in every EIS that amended the 99 Land Use Plans, resulting in more conservation oriented preferred alternatives that were adopted for the final plan revisions.
Applying Sage-grouse plan amendments
Once new federal sage-grouse Land Use Plan amendments were in place in the fall of 2015, Wild Utah Project took the opportunity to apply them in the field. Alongside conservation partners, including Western Watersheds Project, we undertook a site selection process to select representative allotments to apply the habitat assessment methodologies within the new Land Use Plans. Our selection process pointed to BLM’s Warm Springs grazing allotment in south-central Idaho, one of numerous areas where grazing practices over many years have degraded sage-grouse habitat. Together with 15 citizen scientists, recruited by our partner Great Old Broads for Wilderness, we conducted one week of field data collection in the summer of 2016. To make sure the data we collected was consistent with agency methods and standards, we used the BLM’s new Sage-Grouse Habitat Assessment Framework (HAF) protocol to evaluate the current level of habitat function of the brood-rearing habitat in multiple pastures in the allotment. Wild Utah Project then summarized the data collected to determine whether the stipulations of the amended Resource Management Plan, such as grass height, have been met on the allotment. We did find multiple cases where it had not, and brought this to the attention of the BLM. The new Land Use Plan amendment provides that, if the standards are not being met and grazing practices are determined to be the cause, then the grazing management must change when the permit is renewed. In this important proof of concept exercise, we will be watching to see if this year BLM's data collection records the same problems, and then watch to see that the necessary changes in management happen when the permit is renewed.