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How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers

The BLM just released its decision on its proposed Bruneau Owyhee Sage-grouse Habitat Project (BOSH Project) which will degrade 617,000 acres of southern Idaho by logging juniper, creating linear weed patches known as fire breaks, and using other questionable management strategies, all done, we are told in the name of enhancing sage grouse habitat.

Remarkably the BLM failed to note that livestock grazing is by far and away the biggest factor in sage grouse decline across the West, in part, because of the multiple ways that the livestock production harms the bird. But, of course, seeing its role to pander to the welfare ranchers of the West, the BLM has taken the politically expediate measure of doing more harm in the name of sage grouse.

The BLM starts out with some questionable assertions. The first is that juniper, a native species, is expanding its range and thus must be eradicated.  Any number of studies challenge that assumption. Juniper woodlands tend to burn at intervals of hundreds of years, and in stand replacement blazes. After such blazes, the juniper slowly recolonizes the landscape. Also climate change has led to natural expansion of juniper in some areas. In either case, the presence of juniper is not abnormal or something to be destroyed.

Instead of even responding to such studies, the BLM relies only on studies by Range Department professors who exist to justify livestock grazing on public lands. These studies start with the incorrect assumption that wildfire was very frequent in sagebrush ecosystems and therefore, also in juniper woodlands, but more recent sagebrush fire studies also find sagebrush burns at long rotations of hundreds of years.

Beyond the fact that juniper woodlands are native and natural, the BLM advocates logging and burning which has been shown in many locations to become inoculation sites for cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is spread wherever there is disturbance. Disturbance from logging or disturbance from livestock.

Livestock by trampling soil crusts and consuming native grasses, aids the spread of cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass poses a far greater threat to sage grouse because it increases the fire frequency and burns out both juniper and sagebrush.

The other major assertion of the BLM that is equally as misleading is that creation of 200-foot-wide linear “fuel breaks”. While fuel breaks may work to some degree under low to moderate fire weather conditions, under extreme fire weather, such breaks are for the most part useless.  All large fires occur under extreme fire weather conditions of drought, low humidity, high temperatures and wind, especially wind. Wind blows embers miles ahead of a flaming front. A 200-foot-wide “fuel break” has absolutely no effect on such wind-driven fires.

But such linear disturbances are wonderful pathways for the spread of weeds, including cheatgrass.

Beyond these concerns, the BLM again has ignored the multiple ways that livestock degrades sage grouse habitat. Beyond the trampling of soil crusts and spread of cheatgrass mentioned earlier, livestock fencing is a major mortality factor for the low flying birds. Fences are also perching for avian predators like raven that feed on sage grouse chicks and eggs. Livestock are also the major factor in the destruction and loss of riparian areas and wet meadows which are critical to young sage grouse chicks. Livestock also consume some of the forbs (flowers) critical for growth by sage grouse chicks. Livestock also consume the native grasses and other vegetation that would otherwise hide nesting exposing birds and young to predators.  The irrigated hay fields that dot the West, usually created by eliminating the native vegetation, not only eliminates much of the native habitat for grouse, but can fragment habitat because grouse at loathe to fly across large expanses of hay meadow without cover from sagebrush.

There are other ways that livestock production harms sage grouse, but you would never know that any of these exist from the way the BLM ignores science to facilitate the use of our public lands for private profit by the West’s welfare ranchers.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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