Forest Service proposes changes to sage-grouse plans

By Laura Bies

A greater sage-grouse appears at Caribou-Targhee National Forest, one of the areas affected by the proposed management plan changes. ©U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service has released proposed changes to land management plans in five Western states intended to better protect greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), along with a draft environmental impact statement analyzing those changes.

The proposal, which incorporates new information about sage-grouse conservation, aims to “improve the clarity, efficiency and implementation” of 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse Plan amendments, it says, and is intended to better align with Bureau of Land Management and state plans. The changes would affect sage-grouse habitat on 5.32 million acres of national forests in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

Proposed changes would replace the designation of “sagebrush focal areas” with “priority habitat management areas,” and change the adaptive management framework to align with BLM and state-based adaptive management systems. They would revise livestock management guidelines to remove restrictions on water developments and replace specific grass-height requirements with standardized evaluation methods. The changes would also further emphasize invasive plant management by adding a plan objective that stresses treatment of invasive plants in priority habitat management areas. 

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, determining that voluntary, cooperative efforts by state and federal agencies, along with private landowners, would be sufficient to conserve the species.

In June 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued an order asking his bureaus to review their sage-grouse conservation plans and recommend ways to better align them with state management plans. The Forest Service also cooperated in that review. In late 2017, TWS, along with 23 other organizations, expressed concerns about possible changes to sage-grouse conservation plans and recommended that any changes apply adaptive management techniques and be science-based.

The BLM was the first to proceed with changes to sage-grouse conservation plans. It issued a preliminary notice in October 2017, followed by six draft environmental impact statements in May 2018. Those changes affected plans in Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and northeastern California. The public comment period on those changes ended Aug. 2. The BLM expects to publish final versions of those plans later this year.

Soon after BLM’s announcement in late 2017, the Forest Service asked for public comments about making similar changes. In July, it announced its intent to propose changes to its sage-grouse management plans and issue a draft EIS. Comments are being accepted on its proposed land use management plan changes and draft EIS through Jan. 3.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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