A greater sage grouse in flight. (Rick McEwan, courtesy of Sage Grouse Initiative)

A consortium of conservation groups has given a much-ballyhooed U.S. Bureau of Land Management plan for the Lander area an “F” for failing to safeguard greater sage grouse.

Six conservation groups graded the BLM’s Lander Resource Management Plan (RMP) against a “scorecard” and said it failed on 24 of 33 conservation standards. Most of those standards were set by a nationwide scientific team in 2011, more than half of whose member’s were the BLM’s own experts, the critics say.

“They’re managing sage grouse habitat for continued declines,” said Erik Molvar of Wild Earth Guardians, one of the groups issuing the “F” grade. “We need to stop finding ways to destroy more sage grouse habitat.”

The Lander plan, signed by the BLM June 26 and covering 2.4 million acres mostly in Fremont County, outlines what activities will and won’t be allowed in sage grouse habitat. The BLM Lander Plan hews closely to another sage grouse blueprint set by Wyoming itself — the state’s core-area strategy.

In embracing Wyoming’s core-area strategy, the BLM has rejected the findings of its own scientists, the scorecard illustrates. The conservation groups’ criticisms make it clear just how far apart the state core strategy and the federal scientists’ recommendations are.

That is a striking development with nationwide implications for sage grouse conservation. In adopting the Lander plan, BLM National Director Neil Kornze said the Wyoming sage grouse core area strategy, and the recent Lander RMP, present models for sage grouse protection that other states and BLM districts could soon follow. The details of the Lander plan as analyzed by the conservation groups now suggest that the state strategy and the recent RMP are far from providing what federal scientists for the BLM have called the “best available science of protecting and enhancing greater sage grouse populations and habitat.”

Consequently the Lander plan shouldn’t serve as a template for other areas, said Molvar. In addition to his WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, Western Watersheds Project, Advocates for the West and Wild Utah Project created the scorecard that’s been endorsed by 27 conservation groups.

Some groups, including the Wyoming Outdoor Council, have supported the BLM Lander plan, however, saying it balanced conservation and development. The Lander plan puts some areas off-limits to mineral leasing and requires a master leasing plan for others.

Wyoming BLM officials objected to the scorecard’s failing grade.

“Clearly we disagree with their findings,” said Buddy Green, the BLM’s deputy state director for resources. “When these folks did their scorecard — they really didn’t focus on the entire document, only parts. That may have been a contributor to their perceptions.”

At issue is whether ongoing conservation efforts – including measures on BLM lands – will keep the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from placing the grouse on the list of threatened or endangered species by a September, 2015 deadline. Such a listing could restrict activities across sagebrush landscape in the West, with potential impact to livestock grazing and mineral development.

The six conservation groups say the Lander RMP, if used as a model, will be no help in avoiding a listing. “The Lander plan utterly fails to do what’s needed to stem the decline of sage grouse in this part of Wyoming, making it more likely that these birds will require the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” Western Watersheds Project executive director Travis Bruner said in a statement.

State and BLM officials have touted the Lander plan. Gov. Matt Mead has said it should show that the sage grouse does not need to be protected by the Endangered Species Act, calling the plan “a very positive step before (the) listing decision.”

Here is the conservation groups’ scorecard, which they used to give the BLM’s Lander resource plan an “F.” BLM officials disagree with the criticism and call the plan balanced. (click to read)

In making their scorecard, the conservation groups closely followed the 2011 “Sage grouse National Technical Team report,” Molvar said. A team of 27, more than half of whom were BLM employees, put together the 74-page document to ensure BLM actions are “based on the best available science.”

The conservationist’s scorecard assessed the BLM’s plan for managing lands in the Lander district against 33 measures the groups said are the minimum to conserve sage grouse. The 2011 National Technical Team report formed the foundation for the measures, except for some grazing standards that the technical team didn’t have time to address, Molvar said.

The BLM met only nine of those in the Lander plan, the scorecard said.

“The Lander (Resource Management) plan will be ineffective in conserving greater sage grouse,” the groups wrote Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. The plan allows new mineral leasing in core sage grouse habitat, contrary to the findings of the National Technical Team (NTT), the letter said.

The plan also fails to protect grouse mating leks and associated nesting and rearing habitat, the letter said. It also allows twice as much disturbance, like gas well pads, as recommended by the Technical Team in core areas and doesn’t protect grouse winter habitat, the groups said.

“The plans must be effective to conserve the species, not half measures to avoid difficult decisions and buy a bit more time while the grouse declines,” the groups told Jewell. The conservationists pledge to apply their scorecard to all BLM plans as they are revised.

“Federal scientists have identified very specific steps for protecting greater sage grouse from development in the West, including restraining oil and gas exploitation,” Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The question now is whether the Obama administration will follow those steps. We’ll be holding the BLM accountable and making sure that the best available science is followed to protect these iconic birds of the West.”

The scorecard covers issues ranging from habitat to mineral development, renewable energy, rights of way, livestock grazing, plus vegetation, travel and infrastructure management. Grazing was one area the National Technical Team did not have time to assess, Molvar said, so the scorecard includes a standard of seven inches of grass left behind after grazing in sagebrush country.

“Sage grouse rely almost entirely on hiding and camouflage,” Molvar said. “They’re not good at escaping once identified.

“Once livestock grazing takes out the grass, they’re exposed to their predators and the predation rates increase as a result,” he said. In addition, too much grazing can degrade the range to the point it is invaded by cheatgrass, Molvar said, pointing to neighboring Utah as a place that’s plagued by it.

“We’re not going to be able to get rid of it once it gets established,” he said. “It presents an existential threat not only to the livestock industry but to big game populations — elk and mule deer — and sage grouse as well.”

The BLM’s Green discounted the criticism.

“Livestock grazing was not identified as a primary threat within this region,” he said. “Regardless, BLM worked collaboratively with the state of Wyoming and the outcome of that collaborative effort was the governor’s executive order ‘Greater Sage Grouse Core Area — Grazing Adjustments’.

“That executive order provides a general framework in which we will address grazing and sage grouse at the implementation level,” Green said. Among other things, the 2013 order by Mead says the state and federal government will act to protect grouse habitat from overgrazing, based on at least five years of data. The order, part of the core strategy, also states that grazing is compatible with grouse conservation and “may improve habitat.”

Mineral development also will further cripple the grouse if permitted under the standards set in Lander plan, Molvar said. “Only about half the grouse core areas has been withdrawn from leasing,” he said.

Core areas themselves, as defined by the governor’s executive order, do not include sites favored by sage grouse if the lands were already leased for energy or other development as of 2008 (see this WyoFile report).

Molvar contends that definition of “core area” amounts to “gerrymandering” that has little relation to wildlife science but much to do with favoring industry. He notes it has allowed the development in former sage grouse habitat for a variety of major projects including the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project, the Atlantic Rim coal-bed methane field and the DKRW coal-to liquids plant and mine.

Core areas designated by Wyoming for the protection of sage grouse took account of planned industrial development, and that amounted to “gerrymandering,” critics contend. The map above shows where they believe industry plans inappropriately held sway over the needs of the grouse.

Even within remaining areas that are designated as “core areas,” to be protected, a problem with the Lander plan is that oil- or gas-well pads could be constructed within 0.6 miles of mating leks. The National Technical Team report, however, recommended a four-mile buffer.

The difference is significant, Molvar said. “It looks like you’re protecting a quarter (of what’s recommended) but when you look by area, it’s less than 4 percent.” Ultimately, what the technical team guidelines would recommend for lek-area protection is cut by 96 percent in the Lander plan, he said.

The state core area strategy allows up to 5 percent surface disturbance per 640 acres (the equivalent of 1 square mile) within core areas. That contrasts with only 3 percent disturbance per square mile in the NTT recommendation, although Wyoming contends it counts more things — like fire — as disturbances.

Molvar said that increase above the NTT recommendation that is allowed by the state core area strategy is coupled in the BLM plan for the Lander area with a “Density and Disturbance Calculation Tool” he alleges is biased toward industry.

“This tool allows oil and gas developers to calculate their impact across hundreds of square miles,” he said, even if their project is much smaller. “It’s a way of disguising the intensity of projects. It’s very sneaky.”

As an example, he provided a map where the density tool was used on the Lost Creek in-situ uranium mine in the Red Desert.

“In this case, according to BLM’s calculation, this project disturbed less than 1 percent of the area,” he said. If calculated correctly, the result would be more than 8 percent disturbed, he argued.

“The bottom line, you might be able to wedge a Jonah-size gas project in one of these core areas,” Molvar said. “The calculation area is so vastly inflated, it would still look like it was 1 well pad per square mile. It’s trickery.”

BLM critics say density calculations make developments, like the uranium mine proposed on this map, seem as if they disturb a smaller part of the project area that they actually do. That’s because the project area is much smaller (light blue interior rectangles) than the area used to calculate development density (dark blue exterior outline.)

Again, Green disagreed.

“We believe the DDCT (Density and Disturbance Calculation Tool) is a solid tool,” he said. “We find it to be an excellent tool for measuring disturbance. Many of the misconceptions we believe can be addressed by a demonstration how the tool works.”

Pam Murdock, the BLM’s state program leader for planning initiatives, said flatly that disturbance would be limited around Lander. “The Lander plan does in fact limit density to an average one site per 640 acres …” she said.

BLM spokesman Beverly Gorney said the Lander plan was seven years in the making and involved many stakeholders.

“This isn’t the first time we have received criticism,” she said. “We believe we’ve done a good job on this. The balancing of all of the interest and all of the resources is delicate.”

Green also touted the efforts of many who contributed to the plan. “This planning effort was a remarkable example of collaboration,” he said. “We’re very proud of the outcome.”

It’s also good for the grouse, he said. “Clearly we believe that it is.”

For more, read “BLM mixes oil, grouse in Lander plan” July 2014.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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