The BLM is seeking public comments on six draft supplemental environmental impact statements released last week to help it determine whether it should make changes to sage grouse management plans for Idaho and six other Western states. Three conservation groups that obtained a preliminary injunction in federal court last year halting implementation of the plans say the new EISs do nothing to improve the flawed plans.
In March 2019, the BLM finalized changes to sage grouse management plans originally drafted in 2015. The agency stated that it made the changes to better align them with plans developed by the states. However, conservation groups contended that the changes reduced safeguards related to livestock grazing, oil and gas development, mining and other threats to healthy sagebrush ecosystems.
In a decision in federal district court in Idaho on Oct. 16, Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the BLM is entitled to align its actions with the state plans, but said that “when the BLM substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification—a hard look—in the NEPA documents.”
In its draft supplemental EISs released last week, the BLM contends that it has done just that.
“The draft SEISs illustrate the hard look and robust analysis we performed in this collaborative process to balance our habitat conservation and enhancement goals in response to recent litigation,” said Casey Hammond, assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management, in a press release issued Feb. 19.
According to the release, the supplemental EISs explain how the range of alternatives analyzed in the 2019 EISs was developed and how best available science was used.
However, in an interview, Erik Molvar, executive director of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, called the BLM’s supplemental EIS for Idaho “600 pages of excuses for why the previous analysis should have been good enough to pass judicial muster.”
In a joint press release, the three conservation groups—the others are WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity—contend that sage-grouse populations are dwindling in all Western states. Over the past few years, sage-grouse numbers are down 52 percent in Idaho, 61 percent in Utah, 33 percent in Nevada and 44 percent in Wyoming, the groups say.
“The birds once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but their populations have plummeted as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads, powerlines and other activities have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats,” they state in the release.
Sage grouse habitat includes much of southern Blaine County.
The BLM stated that suspending implementation of the 2019 plans has affected programs and projects across BLM-managed land throughout the West, including authorization of renewable energy projects and oil and gas leases, grazing permit renewals and wildfire management.
The BLM is seeking comments on the draft supplemental EISs through April 6. Comments may be submitted electronically at goo.gl/Jd8uVf or mailed to BLM Idaho State Office, attn: Greater Sage-Grouse State Implementation Lead, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise, ID 83709.
The documents can be found on the Federal Register here.
A BLM spokesman said in an email that the agency will “review and interpret the comments received to determine whether new decisions are needed for the 2019 plan amendments.”