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Burning Sagebrush Will Not Save Endangered Grouse

Grouse chick. Photo: Wildlands Defense.

The BLM wants to burn 30,600 acres of sagebrush in southwest Montana. In a nutshell we are suing to stop the burning and destruction of 48 square miles of sage grouse habitat in the Middle Ruby River, Centennial, South Tobacco Root, and Blacktail watersheds.

The Bureau of Land Management proposals contend the huge, years-long project will increase and improve habitat for sage grouse and other species that rely on sagebrush steppe habitat. But reams of federal, state, and independent scientific research as well as on-the-land experience with similar projects wind up doing just the opposite – and that burning such huge areas of sagebrush and juniper will actually decrease the likelihood of sage grouse recovery.

After they burn the sagebrush and juniper, cheatgrass will move in as we have seen in many examples across the West. Cheatgrass is an invasive species that cannot be eradicated by any current methods. By May the cheat grass cures to become a hard stem with extremely sharp seeds capable of penetrating the stomach and intestines of animals that try to ingest it. So not only won’t wildlife or cattle eat it, the cheat grass seeds get into the eyes of nesting birds that use sagebrush habitat and it blinds them.

Adding to the problems caused by invasive cheat grass is that the projects intend to conduct burning and slashing in designated Wilderness Study Areas that are mandated by federal law to preserve the characteristics that qualify them for potential future wilderness designation.

Wilderness, as well as how it should be managed, is clearly defined in the Wilderness Act of 1964. “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

Burning and slashing nearly 50 square miles of existing sagebrush-steppe habitat is obviously in conflict with preserving the Wilderness Study Areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”

Our lawsuit contends the proposals violate the mandatory duties of the Bureau of Land Management under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Lands Planning and Management Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The BLM claims that they are working to save sage grouse. While at the same time they are continuing to burn thousands of acres of sagebrush in areas occupied by sage grouse which depend on large tracts of older sagebrush. Burning sagebrush not only eliminates critical sage grouse habitat for over 20 years but it also breaks up large sagebrush tracts to the detriment of sage grouse. So to recover sage grouse from the brink of extinction, it is necessary at this point to turn to litigation to force a federal agency to follow the law and the conclusions of current best science.

Dr. Sara Johnson is the Director of Native Ecosystems Council. She was a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service for 14 years and has a Ph.D. in biology from Montana State University.  

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