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Greater sage grouse resource management plans get a do-over

SALT LAKE CITY — The West's most controversial bird species continues to be the target of multipronged conservation strategies and the recipient of millions of dollars to boost its population.

The latest development in the saga of the greater sage grouse came Friday when the Bureau of Land Management officially released proposed revisions to resource management plans for the bird, including strategies for Utah.

Proposed modifications come as a result of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's Secretarial Order No. 3353 issued last June that directed enhanced "cooperation" between the U.S. Department of Interior and Western states.

Six draft plans covering seven Western states are out for review.

Male greater sage grouse gather in a lek to perform strutting displays in order to attract females to mate with near Henefer on Sunday, May 6, 2018.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Male greater sage grouse gather in a lek to perform strutting displays in order to attract females to mate with near Henefer on Sunday, May 6, 2018.

"We are committed to being a good neighbor and respect the state's ability to manage wildlife while recognizing the tremendous investments of effort into improving greater sage grouse populations over the last decade," said Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt. "We look forward to receiving comments on the draft."

In Utah, the BLM's planning area covers 48 million acres in 29 counties. The draft environmental impact statement released Friday covers 1.5 million acres of BLM-managed surface estate and 1.5 million acres of subsurface mineral estate.

The proposed changes, according to the BLM, are the result of state's input and other stakeholders who complained the federal plans adopted in 2015 did not account for local needs.

Under the proposal, the BLM would eliminate the general habitat management area designation impacting 448,600 acres in the state.

The document notes the removal of that designation would not result in the long-term decline of the species because of the requirement to replace or bolster habitat in "priority" areas should development occur in the general habitat area.

Of the 366 known occupied leks in Utah, 94 percent of them are within priority areas, while eight leks in the general habitat management designation are on lands controlled by the BLM.

Quincy Bahr, the BLM Utah's acting branch chief of planning and environmental coordination, said the proposed change directs more conservation and habitat restoration efforts to priority areas where the majority of the bird's population exists.

The draft plan also proposes to change the "adaptive management strategy" based on comments from Gov. Gary Herbert, who was part of the Greater Sage Grouse Task Force.

Bahr said the 2015 plan called for immediate action before determining the cause of sage grouse population decline. In contrast, the revision calls for first determining the cause for the decline and then taking steps to address the problem.

With grazing, Bahr said it looks like many of the rules are eliminated in the revision, when instead they are already covered under some other policy.

"We determined those actions were being implemented but with other authorities."

Environmental groups panned the revisions, saying they hasten the decline of the species.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said an initial evaluation of three of the states' plans, including Utah's, shows they undermine sage grouse conservation efforts in "significant" and detrimental ways.

"None of these plans as proposed to be amended will be adequate to prevent further population declines for an already rare and struggling bird," Molvar said.

Utah BLM Director Ed Roberson said the changes recognize the unique nature of bird populations in Utah.

"We are not abandoning the 2015 plans; we are building on them," he said. "In the 2 1/2 years since those plans were adopted, we've gotten tremendous feedback from the state on on-the-ground outcomes and impacts that are the basis for proposed changes that recognize the unique nature of sage-grouse presence in Utah."

The draft plan is out forpublic comment until Aug. 2, as well as specific planning issues and priority habitat management decisions.

Bahr encouraged people to read the document.

"I hope folks take the time. We have purposefully worked within the direction of the secretarial order to make these documents more approachable, more readable. The (environmental impact statement) is not an insurmountable document. We attempted to make this a document folks could read."