Last modified: Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Upland game

Utah's plan for Sage-grouse and development

June 6, 2008

While many greater sage-grouse populations have increased in recent years due to intensive habitat and wildlife management efforts, there remains a long-term declining trend in sagegrouse populations throughout the West and across Utah. Sage-grouse populations are known to vary cyclically, but the present long-term pattern of decline exceeds any historically observed population variability. Sage-grouse populations are, as a result, continuing to receive heightened conservation focus by state wildlife agencies and federal land managers, among others.

Suitable sagebrush cover is particularly important during sage-grouse nesting, early broodrearing, and wintering seasons. Sage-grouse survival and fecundity have been linked to sagebrush habitat quality during these life-history stages, and therefore these sagebrush wildlife habitats need to be conserved or improved in keeping with the best available scientific and management information.

The primary federal public lands agencies, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, operate under a "multiple-use" mandate expressed in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, National Forest Management Act, the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act, and other legislation. These agencies must therefore consider wildlife needs in the context of other legitimate public land uses, including oil and natural gas development. Some of these other uses may reasonably occur within the same public lands inhabited by sage-grouse.

The State of Utah supports wildlife conservation as well as development and use goals for BLM and Forest Service administered public lands in Utah, and must therefore seek to mesh development and sage-grouse protection needs in an acceptable manner. To this end, the State of Utah supports a structured mitigation procedure that generally employs "No Surface Occupancy" conditions, "Controlled Surface Use" stipulations, and ecologically sensitive development plans. The goal is to first seek to avoid or reduce impacts to sage-grouse, and then to compensate effectively for unavoidable impacts.

The state recognizes that conclusive answers to all salient management questions are not presently available in the wildlife literature. There are strong indications that suitable sagebrush habitat within the 2 miles surrounding active sage-grouse leks is of extreme importance to the viability of sage-grouse populations. Therefore, development within 2 miles of active leks, must be supported by careful planning, implementation, monitoring and mitigation, which incorporate any mitigating natural features, to ensure that all reasonably practicable means are taken to avoid and reduce disruptive impacts to sage-grouse. On the other hand, the relative importance of the other disturbance factors contributing to sage-grouse decline has not been clarified sufficiently. Development, including energy development, is one of a handful of disturbance factors identified in the scientific literature as potentially significant to sage-grouse conservation.

Rigorous development of new information is needed to explain how sage-grouse survival and productivity are affected by habitat loss or alteration, energy-development disturbance, new roads, the potential additive nature of hunting mortality, West Nile virus, extreme (hot, dry, "Mediterranean") weather conditions, non-native invasive plants (especially cheatgrass, which dramatically increases wildfire frequency, as well as severity), the proliferation of avian and mammalian predators, and other factors. This information incorporated into mitigation practices will increase our ability to conserve sage-grouse populations and allow development and other human uses to continue on public lands.

The following six principles related to sage-grouse conservation are core elements of Utah's plan and must be addressed thoroughly in an evaluation of development or land-use proposals:

  1. Conservation must be approached in a specific sequence. Simple avoidance of habitat degradation and disturbance is the preferred approach and should be implemented in all projects where it is reasonably practicable. If the impacts cannot be avoided practicably, all reasonable means of impact reduction should be employed. Other actions, such as compensatory mitigation, will be required when avoidance and reduction measures are insufficient to accomplish the desired conservation results.
  2. Compensatory mitigation and conservation actions must be framed in a context consistent with the geographical location of the development project and the conservation concerns specific to sage-grouse populations in that location. A geographically specific review of the ecological conditions, limitations, approved development or use and monitoring scenarios and mitigation must be undertaken.
  3. An assessment of the sage-grouse populations in the geographic area affected by the development drives how the mitigation and conservation actions are designed. Conservation actions need to be selected based on a specific development proposal's effects and the species' needs. Where appropriate, practicable sage-grouse conservation decisions should be made from a perspective that represents the most practical geographic delineation for sage-grouse conservation. In some cases the delineation may occur at a watershed level, and in others, at a wildlife population-determined level. Statewide and local sage-grouse working groups should be used judiciously to ensure that avoidance, mitigation and conservation actions are appropriate and effective.
  4. Rigorous, properly designed, data-driven experiments and monitoring are needed to gain a useful understanding of how to effectively mitigate for impacts to sage-grouse, and to be able to determine when conservation actions have succeeded.
  5. Early public involvement to help identify the issues within the affected area is an essential component. Public involvement leads to stronger, more fully informed, better-supported decisions.
  6. The approval for the mitigation project should identify the criteria and measures to be used to evaluate success and determine effects. The performance of mitigation and conservation efforts should be based on these same criteria. If results are inconsistent with desired outcomes, actions should be modified in order to achieve the desired results. Mitigation and conservation efforts should enhance the long-term health and viability of the species' population.

In addition to the six general mitigation principles that are core elements of Utah's plan discussed above, the following stipulations and conditions are part of Utah's Plan for Sage-Grouse and Development:

NO SURFACE OCCUPANCY STIPULATION

Surface occupancy of any sort is prohibited within one half mile of active sage-grouse leks, unless with explicit cause and after consultation with the state, the land management agency grants a variance such as an exception, modification or waiver in accordance with the relevant Resource or Land Management Plan.

CONTROLLED SURFACE USE STIPULATION*

Surface occupancy or use is subject to the following special operating constraints:

Between one half mile to two miles of active leks, including identified sage-grouse nesting, early broodrearing, and wintering habitats, and within other key sage-grouse wintering areas, development may proceed when every reasonable effort has been made to avoid and reduce disturbance impacts to these key habitats, through such means as using topographic screening and interspersed non-suitable habitat to avoid or reduce impacts on sage-grouse. For energy developments:


* (For guidance on using these stipulations, see BLM manuals 1624 & 3101 / Forest Service manuals 1950 & 2820).