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Species is now managed under nationwide federal plan

A group of Western senators, including Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, both R-Idaho, have introduced a bill to allow states to implement their own conservation plans to protect sage grouse and their habitats, in lieu of federal management.

    The Greater Sage-Grouse Protection and Recovery Act was introduced Tuesday with six original co-sponsors from four states. A companion measure was introduced in the House on Jan. 13 with 11 co-sponsors from seven states.

    The bill would allow states to choose between implementing their own plan or deferring to federal agencies for sage-grouse protection.

    The species is currently managed under a National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy finalized in 2015 by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not list sage grouse as an endangered species. The strategy is based on 15 “subregional” plans covering more than 100,000 square miles in Idaho and nine other states.

    The plans were supported by the governors of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada, but challenged in court by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Legislature. That suit was dismissed by a federal judge early last month.

    “Sen. Risch and I strongly support the collaborative work undergone in Idaho, other state governments and a broad range of impacted stakeholders to conserve habitat for the sage grouse,” Crapo said. “This legislation will provide states the ability to implement locally based land management plans that were developed and will be managed by those who know the local conditions and needs best.”

    The new legislation would also prohibit the secretary of the interior from conducting large-scale mineral withdrawals for the protection of sage-grouse. In a draft environmental impact statement released in late December, the BLM proposed to put about 10 million acres of important sage-grouse habitat in six Western states off limits to filing new mining claims. The withdrawal includes nearly 4 million acres in southern Idaho, with some areas in southern Blaine County and the Big Lost River valley.

The bill mandates that the species’ nonlisted status on the endangered species list would be maintained for 10 years. The bill also prohibits litigation aimed at overturning its provisions.

    Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, contended in an interview that the legislation would weaken protections for sage grouse.

“This is legislation that the extreme anti-sage grouse wing of the Republican Party has been pushing for years,” Molvar said. “State sage grouse plans are weaker and less comprehensive than the federal plans.

“This legislation is sort of a sneaky land grab that would give over control of federal lands to state management, because almost every management decision involves sage grouse in some way.”