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BLM Opens Utah Sage Grouse DEIS to Public Comment

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has opened a draft Utah Greater Sage Grouse Land Use Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for a 90-day public review and has identified one of five alternatives, which includes conservation measures and prescriptions developed by BLM Utah and the U.S. Forest Service, as the preferred alternative.

Release of the DEIS is the latest step in a federal regulatory process to decide whether the entire western sage grouse population should be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a decision that would have a huge impact on energy operators.

The preferred alternative (Alternative D) includes modifications to conservation measures identified in a previous National Technical Team (NTT) report "and is designed to address local ecological site variability," according to the DEIS. "This alternative also emphasizes balancing resources and resource use among competing human interests, land uses and the conservation of the GRSG [greater sage grouse] habitat." Under the alternative, Preliminary Priority Management Areas (PPMA) would be open to most land uses, "but well-defined stipulations would be applied to authorizations and actions. On the whole, land use restrictions would be more stringent within four miles of occupied GRSG leks [communal breeding grounds], which would protect both the lek and the surrounding nesting/brooding habitat." A unique aspect of the alternative is that some management decisions would extend outside of mapped occupied GRSG habitat, according to the DEIS.

The DEIS includes four other alternatives. Under Alternative A, the BLM and Forest Services would not amend the Land Use Plan and the GRSG habitat would continue to be managed under current management direction. Alternative B, which is based on the NTT report, would close PPMAs to new leasing and mineral materials disposal, and would recommend withdrawal from mineral entry and exclusion for new rights-of-way. Alternative C includes additional conservation measures to those included in the NTT report.

Alternative E is split into two variations: Alternative E1 would apply only to BLM-administered and National Forest System lands in Utah and is based on that state's Conservation Plan for greater sage grouse in Utah (see Daily GPI, April 26), while Alternative E2 would apply only to National Forest System lands in Wyoming and is based on a strategy detailed in executive orders issued by Wyoming's governor in 2011 and earlier this year.

Identification of Alternative D as the preferred alternative does not represent a final decision, BLM said. The final amendment "may include a mix of objectives and actions from any of the alternatives analyzed in the EIS," according to the agency.

The draft would amend 14 BLM and six Forest Service land use plans. The planning effort includes all GRSG mapped occupied habitat lands in Utah for which the BLM and Forest Service have authority to make management decisions. In addition, the BLM has jurisdiction over federal minerals on National Forest System lands and in some areas where the surface is owned by non-federal entities. The Utah draft EIS planning area also includes the portions of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and the Ashley National Forest that extend into Wyoming. Approximately 3,313,800 acres of GRSG habitat are on BLM-administered and National Forest System surface lands, and another 694,880 acres of habitat have underlying federal mineral estate in Utah.

A series of eight information open houses are scheduled across Utah over the next two months and comments on the DEIS will be accepted until Jan. 29 via e-mail (blm_ut_comments@blm.gov), fax (801 539-4074) and mail (BLM Utah, Attn: BLM/FS Utah greater sage grouse EIS, 440 West 200 South, Suite 500, Salt Lake City, UT  84101-1345).

The DEIS was released just days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing the bistate sage grouse as "threatened" under the ESA, which would afford special protections to 5,000 birds along the California-Nevada border (see Daily GPI, Oct. 25). FWS earlier this year postponed a final determination to next March to list the greater sage grouse, or gunnison sage grouse, in Utah and Colorado (see Daily GPI, March 14). Sage grouse species are found across the West in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and parts of Canada. In recent years western states have collaborated to maintain the sage grouse population to prevent an ESA threatened or endangered listing. A threatened listing may take years to overcome; an endangered listing could take decades.

A pair of rules proposed by FWS that would list as endangered the gunnison sage grouse, which is found in Colorado and Utah, and designate 1.7 million acres of critical habitat for the bird under the ESA, would cost the two states more than $290 million annually, according to a draft economic analysis recently released by FWS (see Daily GPI, Sept. 20).

Earlier this year, the House Natural Resources Committee sent a letter to the Interior Department expressing concern about the scientific integrity of and the imposition of what it said were arbitrary deadlines on a decision to potentially list the sage grouse under the ESA (see Daily GPI, March 11).

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