Scott Streater, E&E reporter
Greenwire: Monday, June 16, 2014

The Bureau of Land Management is developing a sweeping plan to protect the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado and Utah that involves amending land management plans in both states to install buffer zones around sensitive habitat, impose seasonal restrictions on oil and gas drilling and livestock grazing, and close roads and trails in occupied grouse habitat.

The plan builds on internal guidance issued last summer by BLM’s Colorado State Office instructing employees on how best to manage occupied habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, which is found almost exclusively in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. The Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court mandate to decide this fall whether to list it for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But the new plan, which BLM outlined exclusively to Greenwire, significantly expands on that guidance by proposing to amend up to 11 resource management plans (RMPs) covering 800,000 acres of Gunnison sage grouse habitat in both states. Doing so would make it formal BLM policy to restrict development within a 4-mile buffer of Gunnison breeding grounds, called leks; limit recreational activities like bird watching and hunting during breeding season; and impose surface occupancy restrictions in occupied Gunnison habitat.

As part of the RMP amendment process, BLM will consider amending management plans to include provisions that “exclude new energy development and rights of way” on federal land in occupied Gunnison habitat and close off these lands to “fluid mineral leasing,” including oil, natural gas and geothermal projects, according to agency documents.

The objective is to take the same landscape-level approach to Gunnison that BLM is using to protect the greater sage grouse, which occupies a much larger range than the Gunnison grouse and is also under evaluation by Fish and Wildlife for a possible threatened or endangered listing.

BLM in the last year has formally proposed 15 regional greater sage grouse plans that call for amending dozens of RMPs covering the management of millions of acres of grouse habitat in 10 Western states.

“We are really trying to look at this now on a landscape scale,” said Leigh Espy, a BLM project manager overseeing the Gunnison sage grouse plan in Lakewood, Colo. “Not, as we would say, just the Gunnison basin, or just the Uncompahgre area, but rather the entirety of the bird’s range. We’re figuring out how to benefit the species on that level.”

BLM plans to formally launch the RMP amendment process for the Gunnison grouse later this month when the agency publishes a notice of intent in the Federal Register announcing that it will conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate the management plan amendments and kicking off a 30-day public scoping period, Espy said.

BLM is targeting completion of the EIS and implementation of the formal RMP amendments by June 2016, she said.

In the meantime, BLM today issued an instruction memorandum (IM) to agency field offices in Colorado and Utah directing them to follow the tenants of the proposed management plan.

The IM states that protecting Gunnison grouse habitat “is crucial for the conservation and protection of this species,” and it outlines a number of conservation measures that mirror the more aggressive steps taken in recent years to protect the greater sage grouse, whose habitat covers 11 Western states.

“Through this range-wide plan amendment process, BLM Colorado and Utah [field offices] should consider and evaluate [Gunnison] habitat conservation measures related to timing restrictions, buffer distances, percentages of allowable surface-disturbing activities, noise and desired density levels or other development constraints” that are consistent with peer-reviewed or other valid sage grouse research, according to the IM.

“At a minimum, [field offices] will analyze and implement conservation measures that prohibit or limit energy and discretionary mineral development within four miles of active leks, and minimize surface disturbance and disruptive activities in all occupied habitat, where appropriate,” the IM states.

The RMP amendments that are the centerpiece of BLM’s habitat conservation plan will not be finalized until well after Fish and Wildlife issues a final decision whether to list the Gunnison grouse this fall.

But BLM says that it hopes moving on the conservation plan and issuing the new IM to field office staff will demonstrate to Fish and Wildlife that fundamental steps are being implemented to protect the Gunnison sage grouse. And if FWS decides to list the bird this fall, BLM will at least have started its new plan, said Steven Hall, an agency spokesman in Lakewood.

“This will be the policy of the BLM,” Hall said.

Growing concern

BLM’s Gunnison sage grouse plan comes just weeks after a federal judge approved a request by Fish and Wildlife to push back by six months the deadline to decide whether to list the bird — to Nov. 12 from May 12 (Greenwire, May 6).

FWS first proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered in January 2013.

Fish and Wildlife was originally required to make a final listing decision on the ground-dwelling bird by May 12 under the terms of a 2011 settlement agreement with WildEarth Guardians stemming from a backlog of species awaiting final listing decisions.

WildEarth Guardians did not oppose the extension request because, the group says, the Interior Department committed to some extensive new mitigation measures, including updating RMPs across the Gunnison sage grouse’s range in Colorado and Utah to include conservation measures.

The legal settlements, the deadline this fall to determine the status of the Gunnison sage grouse and a September 2015 deadline for the greater sage grouse have been heavily criticized by Western lawmakers and the oil and gas industry.

The latest Gunnison grouse proposal is almost certain to spark renewed criticism, especially from Western governors and congressional leaders who in recent weeks have been pushing the Obama administration to defer to the states or to delay by years making a final ruling on the bird.

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) filed a bill last month that would delay by as long as 10 years listing both the Gunnison sage grouse and the greater sage grouse, while giving states the lead in conserving the birds’ habitat (Greenwire, May 22).

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urged Western governors during last week’s Western Governors’ Association (WGA) annual meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., to oppose the bill, saying it wouldn’t help the bird (Greenwire, June 10).

The WGA last week adopted a resolution calling on the federal government to give maximum deference to state conservation efforts and to prioritize funding to avoid new ESA listings.

The resolution referenced only the greater sage grouse, and it did not explicitly endorse delaying Fish and Wildlife’s listing deadline. But it did support legislation or legal or regulatory steps that would allow federal, state and local conservation efforts “adequate time” to be rolled out and be proved effective (E&ENews PM, June 11).

The WGA resolution said state and multistate conservation plans for candidate species such as sage grouse — upon review and endorsement by Fish and Wildlife or the National Marine Fisheries Service — should lead to “regulatory presumption” that an ESA listing is not needed.

The agencies should give “full recognition to voluntary conservation efforts conducted by landowners, states, non-profit organizations, and other stakeholders,” the resolution said.

Ongoing conservation efforts

BLM has been working with Colorado as far back as 2005, when they partnered to establish the Gunnison Sage-grouse Rangewide Conservation Plan aimed at preserving the bird and its sagebrush steppe habitat.

Colorado has done a significant amount of conservation work on Gunnison habitat protection, including enrolling private landowners in formal agreements to take steps to protect or restore habitat on their properties in exchange for assurances that they will not be subjected to more regulations should the bird ever be federally listed.

State and county officials also have worked with land trusts to purchase tens of thousands of acres of conservation easements and adopt county land-use restrictions.

Colorado has also worked closely with the oil and gas industry in the state.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) last year agreed to expand the acreage in formally designated sensitive wildlife habitat areas that require the oil and gas industry to consult with state wildlife officials and avoid impacts before drilling wells. That included adding more than 400,000 acres to Gunnison sage grouse sensitive wildlife habitat, for a total of more than 1 million acres (EnergyWire, Sept. 18, 2013).

While there is currently very little oil and gas development on federal lands in southwest Colorado, there certainly could be in the future, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association in Grand Junction, Colo.

Any policy decision to restrict development there would be shortsighted, Ludlam said, noting that advancements in directional-drilling techniques have made it safer to drill near sensitive wildlife habitat.

“We’ll be watching these RMP revisions and hoping that the agency isn’t going to be making reactionary, arbitrary policy decisions,” he said. “We hope they’ll be steeped in science and maintain the flexibility for commercial infrastructure that’s in harmony with protections for the grouse. We think you can do both.”

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