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Conservation Group Challenges Massive BLM Sagebrush Destruction Project

For Immediate Release
November 29, 2018


Scott Lake, Western Watersheds Project,
(208) 429-1679

Jack Connelly

Conservation Group Challenges Massive BLM Sagebrush Destruction Project

BOISE, Ida. — Western Watersheds Project (WWP) today filed an administrative challenge to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision to mechanically remove sagebrush from 134,152 acres of key sage-grouse habitat in the Big Lost River, Pahsimeroi, and Lemhi valleys of east-central Idaho. According to the appeal, BLM failed to consider the project’s likely impacts on sage-grouse and ignored ongoing damage to sage-grouse habitat from commercial livestock grazing.

“This project relies on false and outdated assumptions about range management and sagebrush ecology,” said Scott Lake, WWP’s Idaho Director. “BLM proposes to destroy critical sage-grouse habitat in order to save it, but there’s no evidence that sagebrush will in fact recover from this kind of disturbance. BLM’s decision threatens to permanently degrade some of the last sagebrush strongholds in Idaho.”

Sage-grouse experts generally discourage projects that destroy or reduce sagebrush within sage-grouse habitat. Sagebrush height and cover both important components of good sage-grouse habitat, and BLM’s own habitat guidelines call for at least 15% sagebrush cover. The majority of the project area in question falls within the BLM’s 15-25% sagebrush cover guideline for sage-grouse nesting and brood-rearing habitat, but the sagebrush elimination “treatments” will reduce sagebrush cover far below these critical thresholds.

“Many studies have assessed the effects of sagebrush control on sage grouse, and the science clearly demonstrates that damaging or destroying sage-grouse winter or breeding habitat will harm sage-grouse populations,” said Jack Connelly, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game researcher and one of the West’s leading authorities on sage-grouse. “Given these findings, the BLM’s proposal to mechanically treat thousands of acres of sage-grouse habitat is both unwise and irresponsible.”

BLM claims the project is necessary to restore native bunchgrasses, but the agency ignores the cause of bunchgrass declines—which is heavy and pervasive livestock grazing, not the density of native sagebrush. According to BLM there are 151 grazing allotments within or near the project area. Many of these allotments are not meeting BLM’s own standards for rangeland health, and BLM proposes to continue grazing as usual through the 10-year lifetime of the project. Studies have shown that grazing in addition to mechanical vegetation treatment can inhibit recovery and contribute to habitat loss.

“Grazing is definitely the elephant in the room that BLM refuses to see,” Lake said. “BLM’s own studies show that there are too many cattle on these public lands, and that overstocking is responsible for suppressing the native bunchgrasses that sage-grouse need to thrive.”

WWP’s challenge asks the Interior Board of Land appeals—an administrative law court within the U.S. Department of Interior—to vacate BLM’s decision. WWP is working to direct BLM’s efforts away from mechanical treatments and toward more proven “passive restoration” techniques, such as rest from grazing. BLM’s own studies show that grazing rest by itself can be effective in restoring native grasses as treatment. Passive restoration has the added benefit of leaving critical sagebrush habitat intact.

“As concerned citizens who care about the health of Idaho’s public lands, we want to see BLM do the right thing for sage-grouse,” Lake said. “That means prioritizing conservation over commercial uses. BLM refused to do so here, and that’s why we are challenging this project.”

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