Sage grouse

Male sage grouse exhibit dramatic plumage displays when trying to attract a mate.

     The Challis and Salmon BLM offices are proposing to eradicate “decadent” sagebrush stands, reseed with desired understory plants and cut “encroaching” fir trees on 250,000 acres of range and forest land in an effort to improve sage grouse habitat. But some say the plan could do more harm than good.

     In a scoping letter sent out last month, the BLM said it had identified areas where past actions had hurt sagebrush ecosystems by reducing the native herbaceous understory and plant diversity. Contributing factors cited include invasion by non-native grasses such as cheatgrass, historical grazing practices and a lack of natural disturbance such as fire. In addition, the letter states, expansion of conifer stands has compromised the quality of the sagebrush habitat in some areas.

     The agency proposes to treat 175,000 acres of rangeland and cut 75,000 acres of Douglas firs, primarily in the Pahsimeroi and Big Lost River valleys, as well as in the Lemhi and East Fork Salmon areas.

     Greg Mann, fire ecologist with the BLM’s Idaho Falls District, said the project’s cost is still unknown. He said the agency anticipates that most of the money would come from federal funds intended for sage grouse conservation. The government is facing a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to place the bird on the endangered species list.

     Mann also said that based on comments already received in the scoping process, the area proposed for treatment could be reduced.

     But, John Connelly, who recently retired after spending 30 years with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game as a sage grouse researcher, said he can’t find any indication that the proposed plan would help sage grouse at all. In fact, he said, there’s little evidence that any habitat treatment projects have ever helped the species. He said the main goal should be to protect the high-quality habitat that’s left, especially from wildfires.

     Connelly said the proposed project could harm sage grouse if sagebrush is cut in breeding areas or in winter habitats, when the grouse are totally dependent on sagebrush for food. He said the BLM’s plan does not indicate what type of habitat would be involved, and areas proposed for treatment almost totally overlap the areas deemed “core” or “important” grouse habitat in the Idaho Governor’s Alternative for sage grouse conservation.

     “That ought to raise some red flags,” he said. “If in fact they’re trying to help sage grouse, I don’t think they’re going about it in the right way.”

     Connolly was one of 11 scientists, all but one with a Ph.D., who signed a March 12 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack contending that federal agencies were not consistently using science to best protect sage grouse.

     “These guys just proved our point,” he said about the BLM’s proposal.

     Katie Fite, former biodiversity director with Western Watersheds Project and now a board member of a recently formed organization in Hailey called Wildlands Defense, went even further, contending that the proposed project would mainly benefit ranchers at the expense of both sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.

     “Ranchers don’t like woody vegetation—they’d rather see cow grass,” she said. “The BLM is hijacking funds that are supposed to be for sage grouse and using it for cattle forage projects.”

     Fite said the BLM proposes to treat areas where she had repeatedly complained about damage from cattle grazing. She said exclosures there show that degradation of the sagebrush ecosystem continues to be caused by livestock.

     “It’s clear that you don’t have to cut the sagebrush to improve the vegetation—you just have to get the cows off,” she said. “A lot of that country, you give it a few years rest and it will make an amazing recovery.”

     Fite said pockets of fir trees on hillsides may be reappearing after having been cut for mining timbers in the 19th century, rather than “encroaching” on what was historically a sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, as the BLM contends. She said fir forests provide cover for big game, especially in the winter.

     “There are a myriad of benefits from having a variety of habitats in the area,” she said.

     Connelly said that depending on ecological conditions and grazing patterns, livestock grazing can be compatible with good sage grouse habitat. He said there’s no data relating grazing to sage grouse distribution, though a study under way at the University of Idaho is addressing that issue.

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