Capital Press: Senators blast federal agencies over sage grouse plans

U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials were in the hot seat recently as senators from Western states criticized the agencies’ top-down approach in new land use plans for sage grouse conservation.

Senators chastised the agencies’ disregard of state input in federal plans announced last September as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision not to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

They pointed out that the states’ investments in management plans and local collaboration have resulted in impressive increases in sage grouse populations and were critical factors in the decision not to list the bird.

The agencies used the creation of the federal management plans as justification for the decision not to list, despite the fact the plans had not yet been tested, let alone finalized, said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Public Lands, Forestry and Mining, which held the June 28 hearing.

After nine months, the agencies have still not released guidance documents on how the plans will be implemented, but draft instructional memoranda leaked in March have led to widespread concern that the documents would include inconsistent or unreasonable habitat targets that would not reflect on-the-ground range realities, Barrasso said.

“These criticisms have plagued the federal plans from the beginning, in large part because the federal plans in many cases failed to use successful state efforts as a roadmap for the federal plans,” he said.

There is significant opposition to federal actions that advocate sweeping policy direction mandated by Washington, D.C. The one-size-fits-all policies cripple access to public lands and disenfranchise those who have a vested interest in healthy resources, he said.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said the federal government has handled the sage grouse issue abysmally since its reversal from a focus on state plans initiated by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“I’m frankly disgusted with the way the federal government has gone about this. I’m disgusted with where we are right now, and I’m very disenchanted with the Department of the Interior’s efforts, which I think have frustrated the states’ efforts,” he said.

Certainly there’s science involved, but it’s not nuclear physics, he said.

“We keep focusing on grazing, mining, transmission lines and everything else when everyone knows that the problem is fire,” he said.

Everything people are arguing about really isn’t focusing on what can be done to prevent fires in these critical areas, he said.

“So I’m hoping we will again focus on what is the real problem for the sage grouse,” he said.

Utah has done an extraordinary job of finding ways to balance the need to protect sage grouse and allow for economic activity, said. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

“I’m worried that Utah’s federal partners have been showing a pronounced propensity to ignore suggestions made by the state,” eroding trust and making it more difficult to achieve common goals, he said.

Utah submitted substantial comments and suggestions on how best to manage sage grouse in Utah and not one was followed by the federal agencies in the new land-use plans, he said.

“This is incredibly frustrating. I’d like to think my state has earned a seat at the table, not only because it’s affected by this … but also because my state has spent upwards of $50 million trying to figure out how to protect the sage grouse,” he said.

That’s a lot of money for a small, not terribly wealthy state, and the state’s efforts have had a good effect with a better than 50 percent increase in the sage grouse population since 2013, he said.

“To have every single one of Utah’s land-use plans suggestions categorically rejected and not incorporated makes your agencies appear aloof and unresponsive, unconcerned about the dynamic of the state/federal partnership,” which state officials describe as a dictatorial relationship, he said.

Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons said he’d have to talk with state officials and others regarding the nature of the requests and how federal officials responded.

“I would also point out many changes were made in the plans in collaboration with the state before those finals drafts were issued. So I want to make clear that many issues were resolved before we got to that point,” he said.

Other issues might have been raised in the consistency review and he’d have to check with staff on that, he said.

Utah Public Lands Policy Director Kathleen Clarke said state officials did have plenty of discussions with federal officials.

“They were available to talk. The frustration was we had lots of talk and then the federal government did what they wanted to,” she said.

Had some of Utah’s requests been accepted, the state probably would not be in litigation with the federal government over the plans, she said.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Montana has been actively involved in sage grouse conservation for more than a decade and he is disappointed that the federal plans are in conflict with state plans rather than complementary.

“This is just another example of this long list of one-size-fits-none directives coming out of this town that don’t take into account the unique nature of the states and their ability to provide home-grown solutions,” he said.

“I would suggest that we did try to incorporate the views and concerns of the governor and others in Montana in developing the plan, and we will continue to do so through implementation,” Lyons said.

“Montana is in a unique situation in that it is transitioning to adopting a strategy known as a corridor strategy. … So we’re working and will continue to work with the governor’s office as that transition occurs, and I think that will provide additional flexibility for the state in that regard,” he said.