The BLM will hold three public meetings in southern Idaho late this month to provide information regarding recently released draft amendments to sage grouse plans throughout the West, including the plan that covers Idaho and southwestern Montana. One of those meetings will be in Twin Falls on Tuesday, June 26, from 5-7 p.m. at the BLM Twin Falls District Office, 2878 Addison Ave. E. The other meetings will be in Marsing and Idaho Falls.

    The proposed amendments are the result of a June 2017 order from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for a review of the 2015 plans to ensure that they complement state efforts to conserve sage grouse and to examine their impacts on resource development.

    The draft environmental impact statements and amendments to the plans were published on May 4, beginning a 90-day public comment period.

    In a news release, the BLM called the upcoming meetings “the next step in aligning federal habitat conservation efforts with state wildlife management plans.” The agency stated that the public meetings will help attendees learn about the draft plan amendments and formulate written submissions before the comment period ends Aug. 2.

    “The 2015 sage grouse plans have been in place for almost three years,” said acting BLM Idaho State Director Peter Ditton. “We know what is working and what needs more attention. We are taking the opportunity to build on the plans and strengthen them, and look forward to comments from the public to help us to do so.”

    Ditton noted that Western governors have sought changes to the 2015 plans for BLM-managed lands in their states, which spurred the BLM in proceeding with the plan amendments.

    “The state and the BLM are neighbors and partners in conserving greater sage grouse, and this means that we must work cooperatively,” he said.

    Plan amendments could affect up to 61 BLM land-use plans for about 53 million acres in the seven Western states. In Idaho, 23 plans guiding management on 8.8 million acres of public land could be revised, the BLM stated.

    The public meetings will be held in an open-house format, with BLM specialists attending information stations to interact with meeting attendees to provide answers or additional information. Oral comments will not be accepted at the meetings, but computer terminals will be available for submitting written comments on-site.

    The proposed amendments have been criticized by many conservation groups as weakening sage grouse protections.

The proposed amendments eliminate Sagebrush Focal Areas—land designations with the highest level of protection—and several weaken limits on oil and gas development. In Idaho, buffers designed to keep disturbances away from breeding and nesting areas known as leks were reduced. A 7-inch grass height objective of the 2015 plans, established to provide protective cover for nesting birds, was made an optional provision in Wyoming and eliminated entirely in the newly proposed Idaho-southwest Montana plan amendment.

    “Across much of the West, chronic overgrazing by the livestock industry is a major factor in the decline of sage grouse populations, and this is especially obvious in areas that lack oil and gas development,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project. “But instead of tackling this problem head-on, federal agencies appear to be scrambling to avoid any real scrutiny of problem grazing.”

    The proposed Idaho plan website is at goo.gl/Jd8uVf. To submit a comment, click on “Documents & Reports” at left, then click on “Comment on Document” to the right of the draft environmental impact statement. A new window will open that will guide you through the commenting process.

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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