Management of the Sage Grouse
By Scott Jones
The federal management of the Greater Sage Grouse has been the basis of significant activity recently, and may result in significant land management changes for a wide range of activities on millions of acres of public lands in throughout the western United States. Everyone agrees that the conservation of wildlife habitat is a critical usage of public lands but recent planning actions have created more questions on these issues rather than provide the detailed answers to why decisions are being made required by NEPA and fail to provide some basic information mandated by several Executive Orders. Grouse management has even been the basis for discussions regarding new Wilderness designations. These management decisions are critically important to the recreational usage of grouse habitat, as the network of roads and trails that all users rely on to obtain access to their chosen recreational activities have been found to be a threat to the Grouse.
Concerns have been voiced from a wide range of user groups, State and local government agencies and have been very consistent centering around several issues. The concurrent planning of the USFWS and federal land managers has been frustrating to some users. Frequently voiced concerns center around the failure to rely on best available science in the management proposals; failures to address numerous threats to the Grouse while determining that other uses exhibit a much high threat than is scientifically based; local management of Grouse populations has a long and successful history; often general management standards are proposed for an issue but are completely inconsistent with specific management standards that are proposed; and that the federal agencies that will be managing for the grouse in the future are severely limited by budget constraints and no mechanism has been provided to fund these additional management activities. These are serious issues moving forward and must be resolved in insure recreational access to public lands and effective grouse management.
On January 18, 2011, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13563 which specifically required that agencies specify performance objectives rather than specifying the behavior or manner of compliance that regulated entities must adopt . The Executive Order requirement of performance objectives would be highly relevant to the management of the Sage Grouse, as any determination that a Grouse population is threatened would logically require that a target population for the area has been created and it has not been met. Rather than specify what this target population is in the extensive planning documents released, land managers omitted these targets, violating the clear mandate of the Executive Order and hampering effective management of the Grouse moving forward.
Recreational usage of grouse habitat is an issue where conflicting messages have been sent in planning. The USFWS has consistently stated that recreational usage of grouse habitat is not a management issue, and has issued letters to State Departments of Wildlife clarifying that recreational hunting of grouse is not a primary cause of the population decline. Given the USFWS position that the direct taking of the Grouse by recreational hunting activities is outside the scope of listing actions, it would appear that many of the other recreational management standards for usages that pose significantly less threat of a direct taking of the grouse would be on a questionable basis. Trail based recreation would be such a recreational usage, as research indicates that taking of grouse on forest service level roads is a rare occurrence. Disturbance concerns have been identified as an issue with trail usage but the USFWS has also been supportive of the placing of viewing trailers in the vicinity of actively used sage grouse leks to allow the public to view mating activities. Clearly the Grouse is not capable of knowing the difference in the intent of these users. No real discussion of why disturbance of viewing trailers is not a threat while the public means of accessing the trailer must be managed. History has taught us that managing any issue with conflicting standards and without clear objectives is rarely successful.
Recreational usage of roads and trails is a recreational activity that has not been provided the same analysis or deference as hunting in the listing. All users of public lands utilize the dispersed road and trail network to obtain their desired activity but this transportation network has been deemed a threat as it is a surface disturbing activity that must be managed. Little scientific basis has been provided for this position on roads and trails and the research supporting this position has been criticized as theoretical and unsupported by research from other sources. This long term on the ground research of this issue has noted at most a very weak relationship between roads and trails and grouse activity.
The arbitrary nature of the proposed management standards becomes readily apparent when applied to a very common fact pattern, that land managers will have to address. This fact pattern involves a grouse hunter who is accessing his desired hunting area in his jeep or side by side. Asserting that driving to the location poses more of a threat to the grouse than actively hunting and shooting at the grouse just seems questionable at best. These management decisions will be exceptionally difficult for land managers to enforce, almost impossible for the public to understand and support and will probably generate minimal benefit to the grouse.
The public has been generally supportive of the management of Sage Grouse based on quality science and research. This management has proven to be very effective at creating a stable and healthy population of grouse in many parts of its range. These highly effective locally driven management activities will not benefit from the imposition of new federal management standards as part of the possible listing of the Grouse. Rather poorly based federal management standards would directly undermine the public support for all management and result in significant impacts to activities that at most have a minimal impact to the Grouse and would direct limited management resources away from effective management. These situations should be avoided, as they will not protect the Grouse moving forward.