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RBC I On May 28, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released final environmental reviews for land use plans in Colorado that will help to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development.
The land management plans, developed during the past three years in partnership with the state and with input from local partners, will benefit wildlife, outdoor recreation, ranching and other traditional land uses that rely on a healthy sagebrush landscape.
The updated Colorado plan is an essential element of an unprecedented and proactive strategy to respond to the deteriorating health of the American West’s sagebrush landscapes and declining population of the greater sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The collaborative federal-state effort includes three key elements to conserve the sagebrush landscape, which faces threats from fire, invasive species and encroaching development: a comprehensive strategy to fight rangeland fire, strong conservation plans for federal public lands and conservation actions on state and private lands.
“The West is rapidly changing—with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage-grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving Western economy. Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West.”
“Federal and state governments and private landowners recognize that a healthy sagebrush landscape means a healthy Western economy,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “We are working with local partners to design innovative, long-term conservation plans. Together, we can put effective conservation measures in place that not only benefit the greater sage-grouse, but also preserve the Western way of life, help improve grazing lands and bolster rural economies.”
The final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will guide land management on approximately 1.6 million acres of BLM and Forest Service-administered surface land in Colorado. The final EIS is the result of a multi-year public process, including scoping sessions, meetings and comment periods. The plans are now undergoing a 60-day Governor’s Consistency Review period and concurrent 30-day protest period, after which Records of Decisions will be signed.
The plans address issues identified by the FWS in a 2010 determination that found the greater sage-grouse was deserving of protection under the ESA due to the inadequacy of regulatory protections to prevent further sagebrush habitat fragmentation, placing the bird in danger of extinction. Federal protection was deferred because of higher priorities; however, the FWS is required to revisit the determination by Sept. 30.
With the shared goal of taking actions to avoid the need to list the bird, in 2011, then-Secretary Ken Salazar and Western governors, led by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, formed the Sage-Grouse Task Force to develop a cooperative approach to conserving the species across the West.
The plans provide a layered management approach that offers the highest level of protection in the most valuable habitat, known as Priority Habitat Management Areas. Within priority habitat, the plans seek to limit or eliminate new surface disturbance, particularly in Sagebrush Focal Areas, identified by the FWS as “stronghold” areas essential for the species’ survival. The plans seek to minimize disturbance in General Habitat Management Areas, which are lands that require some special management to sustain greater sage-grouse populations, but are not considered as important as priority habitat.
In Colorado, the plan identifies 742,900 acres as general habitat and 926,700 acres as priority habitat. No lands within Colorado have been identified as Sagebrush Focal Areas.
The FEIS’s proposed plan would close all areas within one mile around active leks to new fluid mineral leasing. The remainder of areas identified as priority habitat would be managed as open to fluid minerals with major restrictions, such as no surface occupancy stipulations.
Importantly, the plans honor all valid, existing rights, including those for oil and gas development, renewable energy, rights-of-way, locatable minerals, and other permitted projects. The plan measures only apply to BLM and USFS-managed lands and minerals.
Over the last four years, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its partners in the Sage-Grouse Initiative have worked with more than 1,100 private landowners to restore 4.4 million acres of habitat for sage-grouse while maintaining working landscapes.
More than 350 other species rely on a healthy sagebrush habitat, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn and golden eagles.
BLM Resource Management Plans guide future land management actions and subsequent decisions. These decisions establish the desired outcomes of resource management and the measures needed to achieve these goals and objectives. Forest Service Land and Resource Management Plans guide all natural resource management activities and establish management standards and guidelines for a National Forest. They describe resource management practices, levels of resource production and management, and the availability and suitability of lands for different types of resource management.
The final EIS incorporates Resource Management Plan Revisions for the Colorado River Valley, Grand Junction, Kremmling, Little Snake and White River Field Offices and the Land Use Plan for the Routt National Forest. The BLM worked with cooperating agencies and the State of Colorado to develop the range of alternatives analyzed and to develop the final EIS.
The plan is available at the Colorado State Office and on the project website: blm.gov/sagegrouse
Any person who participated in the planning process for the Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse RMP Amendment and has an interest that is or may be adversely affected by the plan, may protest approval of this proposed plan during the 30-day protest period. The protest period runs through June 29, 2015. Submit protest issues using the following methods: Regular Mail: BLM Director (210), Attention: Protest Coordinator, P.O. Box 71383, Washington, D.C. 20024-1383; Overnight Delivery: BLM Director (210), Attention: Protest Coordinator, 20 M Street SE, Room 2134LM, Washington, D.C. 20003-3503.