Kick ’em When They’re Down: BLM Pushes Sage-Grouse Toward Extinction

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An apt motto for BLM’s Sage-grouse habitat management across the West would be Kick ‘Em When They’re Down. The agency’s grazing program is dead set on locking in everything that’s bad for the birds. Cattle water projects and fences ripping apart habitats continue to proliferate across public lands. The livestock industry is driving this. Grazing permittees submit applications to BLM prodding authorization of facility construction binges. Instead of saying flat out No, BLM obsequiously obliges, fine-tuning NEPA documents to support rancher demands. In its grazing permit renewal NEPA processes, the servile agency evaluates often outrageous rancher-submitted grazing schemes and wish-lists of projects as legitimate alternatives and follows the rancher lead in finalizing decisions. Alternatives submitted by environmental groups are spurned.

Cover ups of land damage pervade land health assessments. Facility development and chaotic flexible grazing schemes are endorsed as cure-alls for any problems found. Assessments portray conditions as meeting health standards or improving, with projects needed to patch over rough spots. The cowering agency’s endless concessions to ranchers are rapidly digging a deep grave for declining sagebrush wildlife. As it cements in more permanent facilities, in addition to the plethora of existing ones, BLM is helping the public lands livestock industry drive Sage-grouse extinct.

Water developments have many harmful impacts to the sagebrush ecosystem. They expand the area grazed, intensify livestock damage to surrounding vegetation communities and protective soil crusts, attract mesopredators, and fragment habitat. Flammable weeds thrive in disturbance zones. Stagnant pipeline troughs and stock ponds harbor mosquitoes that may transmit West Nile virus. Fences cause outright wildlife injury and death (bird collisions, big game barriers and entanglement), and they concentrate livestock leading to similar woes as water developments.

As Sage-grouse fade away under multiple abuse management, they’ll no longer be a bother to ranchers and other public land profiteers. Alarmingly, the Biden administration’s recent 30×30 America the Beautiful report promises more of the same. It gushes over a “working lands” paradigm antithetical to wild lands preservation and species protection.

The livestock industry and allies in BLM wouldn’t be purposefully trying to drive the birds extinct, would they? Remember, this is the same industry that wages a take no prisoners Forever War on native predators. An entire federal agency, Wildlife Services, is at their beck and call snuffing out bothersome native animals – Prairie Dogs, Badgers, Coyotes, Bobcats, Grizzly Bears, Ravens, Wolves.

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Pipeline troughs in Quaking Aspen allotment near Craters of the Moon. BLM points to cow plumbing networks like this as sterling examples of what it hopes to achieve by punching in dozens more miles of pipelines. Big Southern Butte, a massive rhyolite dome in this lava landscape, mystically looks on.

Grouse Population Drops Trip Plan Triggers, Habitat Gets Upgraded, BLM Leaps into Action to Trash Upgraded Habitat

Idaho Falls BLM recently authorized a plethora of new water developments in the Quaking Aspen and Deadman allotments southeast of Arco, an area with minimal natural surface water generally referred to as the Big Desert. It includes both BLM and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) lands. INL is a nuclear research site that rakes in federal dollars for eastern Idaho. The Site, as it’s called, has waste disposal issues and aquifer contamination. Much of INL is grazed, and BLM oversees the cattle and sheep. Portions of Quaking Aspen allotment extend into Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve to the west. The broader landscape, especially where sheep grazing occurs, is notorious for Wildlife Services gunning down and slaying native predators, in advance of livestock being turned out to graze. Pre-emptive strikes take place without a single “depredation” having occurred. Born a Coyote? Guilty as charged.

Sage-grouse populations have plunged as the grazing/weed/wildfire/rehab fiasco cycle repeats itself. Low Sage-grouse numbers and habitat loss have now tripped population decline trigger thresholds established by the 2015 Sage-grouse plans for both the Desert Conservation Area (Quaking Aspen and part of Deadman) and adjacent Mountain Valleys Area (another portion of Deadman. Here’s a poignant account (with fine photos) from spring 2021 in eastern Idaho by long-time lek observer, columnist Bill Schleiss:

There was a lonely single cock standing regally on a rock and it scrunched down as I positioned my truck where I have for over 20 years. Ten years ago, that ridge was the dancing place for over 100 cocks displaying for the hens as they would come to lek.

But on Thursday morning, just one showed up and his sporadic displays did not entice any hens or even another lonely male to show up”.

The 2015 Obama administration Jewell era grouse plans currently in force (litigation overturned the rather modest Trump changes) segregate habitat into Priority, Important and General categories. This form of triage makes little sense for a landscape species going downhill fast. A new USGS report admits to an 80% range-wide decline since 1965, but who knows how great the loss really is – given much more intensive lek counting in recent years vs. the less intensive efforts of the past.

When population decline triggers are tripped because of significant loss of winter or breeding habitat, and/or populations cross a threshold, BLM upgrades Important habitat to the supposedly more protective Priority status. The new pipelines will be built in areas that were pigeonholed as Important habitat on BLM areas. Now elevated to Priority status, the habitat is supposed to receive a higher level of protection. The INL pipeline lengths are under a voluntary Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances with Fish and Wildlife Service, whose Idaho staff have at times made egregious concessions to the livestock industry. Unfortunately, the main assurance with these collaborative agreements is that the birds get the short end of the stick, and development proceeds apace. INL uses Key and Restoration habitat categories, based on a 2006 state plan.

The pipeline NEPA analysis describes:

Lek routes within both IHMA and PHMA in the Idaho Desert Conservation Area have had a population decline of more than 20% from the baseline and have caused an adaptive management trigger to be tripped … all protections and limitations associated with PHMA will now be applied to IHMA within the entire Conservation Area. There are 25 known sage-grouse leks within four miles of the proposed project area … information from 2019 indicates that 19 of these leks are occupied … The current three-year average of males counted on these lek routes have both shown a decrease from the 2011 baseline population”.

Habitat was segregated as Important to begin with because there were issues (reduced sage, crested wheat, recovery needs), and because the default mode of state and federal agencies is to whittle down any protection as much as possible and triage habitat away to reduce rancher and politician ire at constraints on public land abuse.

Now, rather than acting to try to recover the sagebrush community as disaster looms, the “better” agency management sacrifices a large block of habitat to 27 miles of permanent pipelines; 16 trough sites, each with several troughs; a new well drilled into the declining aquifer (will they hit an INL nuke waste plume?); a trough watered from an INL monitoring well; and 3+ miles of new fence for birds to collide with and die. BLM claims troughs would be located where water hauling occurred in the past, or at salt sites or old sheep bedding areas. It never reveals which sites are which, how much past water hauling was authorized, or the extent of past degradation. Nor does it compare the much greater disturbance footprint of permanent water sites vs. salt or bedding sites.

The situation boils down to this: BLM’s response to a Sage-grouse population in crisis is to accelerate depletion of a large block of land by building new infrastructure to intensify cattle exploitation. In 2020, a multi-agency report laid out problems facing the Desert population. It found a serious threat of cheatgrass and highlighted the regions’ huge amount of crested wheatgrass. This coarse exotic cattle forage continues to be densely seeded by using the agency’s severely flawed post-wildfire rehab “emergency stabilization” as an excuse. BLM refuses to remove crested wheat, or at a minimum, inter-plant sagebrush. The report link promptly went dead after I included it in our project appeal.

Killer Troughs

The lethal effects of over 1 million kilometers of fences in Western rural and public lands to wildlife are becoming better known to the public. Troughs too are wildlife killers, especially of smaller animals. Water subsidies allow exotic species to penetrate wild lands where they would be largely absent, disrupting ecological processes, out-competing native species and generally causing trouble. Troughs also promote mesopredators and disease.

BLM claims new pipeline trenches ripped into lava rock country with heavy equipment will run right along roads. In justifying the project, BLM brandishes a 2015 Sage-grouse plan provision that says to route pipelines along roads. This illustrates how fundamentally flawed the grouse plans are. Instead of saying Hey – we need to remove tens of thousands of miles of existing pipelines and troughs in sagebrush habitat and cut grazing so the land can heal before cheatgrass overruns everything, the plans legitimize business-as-usual facility expansion and intensified grazing in general. Even severe levels of grazing abuse can be justified under these plans if it is labeled “targeted grazing” of cheatgrass.

BLM also falls back on antiquated land use plans (the 1983 Big Lost MFP and 1985 Medicine Lodge RMP) because they allocate grazing use here. They’re from the era when BLM actively killed sagebrush and admitted it was done for livestock forage, instead of the lies the agency tells these days to justify its apocalyptic “restoration treatments” . Expansion of water troughs in uplands allows livestock to more intensively exploit remnant less grazed sites, further harming native biodiversity.

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Stagnant water provides breeding sites for mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus, lethal to Sage-grouse and migratory birds. Note the narrow little escape ramp that drowning animals who fall in when troughs are full are to somehow know to navigate towards. (Quaking Aspen allotment).

Insects are attracted to trough water and drown. In hot weather, troughs become clogged with mats of algae, which ensures that an animal that falls in won’t escape. (Spruce allotment, Nevada).

A picture containing ground, outdoor, nature, stone Description automatically generated When you’re out on public lands, look in troughs. I’ll forego images of decomposing birds, bats, chipmunks and lizards. This bat was trapped – slipping off the trough side as it tried to climb out, far from the escape ladder. I got it on a board and placed the board partly in the sun. The lumps on its tail are dirt stuck to wet fur when it fell off as I set the board down. Later I learned that many bat species need a drop of 2 ft. below to take flight, so it may not have survived. Animal encounters like this make me seethe with anger at the waste of wildlife caused by every aspect of public lands ranching, and the fact that a mere 18,000 BLM and 6000 Forest Service permittees (often one and the same) are responsible for a great ecological tragedy playing out across the West claiming more victims every day. (Spruce allotment, Nevada).

Priority Habitat Crawling with Cows in Spring during the Megadrought

This landscape is thick with livestock turned out to graze on public land in spring, devouring nest screening grass cover, disturbing nests and flushing hens, breaking off sagebrush, busting up broods, and attracting egg and chick eaters. When I looked at the existing pipelines in early May, cattle were churning up clouds of dust, consuming the sparse bit of grass and wildflower green up. Plants that normally would have dozens of blooms were lucky to muster a flower or two. Insects associated with flowers are critical to precocial Sage-grouse chicks. Spring livestock grazing generates bountiful subsidies for species like Ravens, Foxes, Coyotes – manure, carrion, afterbirth – (newborn calves were present), livestock supplements, and water in troughs. They then get scapegoated, cast as villains causing declines. BLM’s monitoring of livestock forage use in spring is perfectly timed to hide the amount of grass cover livestock consume, and how much cover was actually present when birds were nesting. Use is measured after the grazing period or growing season ends. Yet livestock repeatedly graze down the same plants. BLM then points to low measured use levels to justify continued high livestock numbers in grazing evaluations.

Heaping On Spring Sheep Conflicts – Twin Buttes Allotment Permit Renewal

BLM also just authorized increased spring sheep grazing in a permit renewal decision for the immense 270,000 acre Twin Buttes allotment (public land south of Mud Lake and large portions of INL in the Deserts grouse population area). Sheep herds can now be turned out a month earlier, starting on March 1, so thousands of sheep, herder camps, guard dogs, temporary water troughs, trucks hauling water and driving on top of sagebrush will be present throughout the entire lek and nesting periods. Ranchers can also switch some fall grazing to spring, increasing conflicts with Sage-grouse needs for undisturbed springtime space.

BLM claims the sheep will be herded away from sage. I’ve been out in Twin Buttes in spring and seen how herding compliance works there. Seven years ago I was looking at sites proposed for a livestock industry-hatched Raven poisoning “experiment” to boost Sage-grouse numbers. A wildfire area was supposed to be closed to grazing. Sheep manure and tracks were all over the burn, and the first green wisps of regrowth grazed down.

Siddoway sheep operations control the bulk of Twin Buttes grazing. Jeff Siddoway is a long-time predator-hating Idaho state senator (surely it was pure coincidence that Twin Buttes was to be part of a poisoning project) who had finally retired from the legislature. But this year, Siddoway subbed when Covid side-lined his successor. He seized the opportunity to introduce the initial version of the 2021 Idaho Wolf eradication bill. Then the anti-mask lawmakers had to suspend the session due to a Covid outbreak. Regrettably, it resumed, and an even worse version of the Wolf deathfest bill sailed through and was signed by rancher Governor Brad Little.

Hammering Habitat Recovering from Fire – Springfield Allotment Pipelines

Before the Appeal period had ended for the Quaking Aspen-Deadman pipeline, BLM sent out a scoping notice for more rancher-desired pipelines in the Big Desert – 9 new more miles and 4 permanent water trough sites in the Springfield allotment. The notice wallowed in the fact there had been past fires, to get a reader to write the habitat off. Then it revealed:

“… an area is considered to be recovered to key habitat if it contains a sagebrush canopy cover of 10% or greater” …11,124 acres have been surveyed, and 9,904 acres have a sagebrush canopy cover of 10% or greater, and can be re-designated as Key habitat.Key habitat is described as areas of generally intact sagebrush that provide habitat during some portion of the year … “there are 16 known leks within 4 miles of the proposed project area … BLM lands within the Springfield allotment are considered both IHMA, PHMA for sage-grouse and key habitat”.

BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service love to hide behind fire as the cause for Sage-grouse declines but they ignore how livestock grazing and BLM management primes the land for fire (cheatgrass invasion, dense crested wheat that fires whip through, fire rehab failures). Rancher pressure to quickly resume grazing thwarts effective native recovery after fires, and cheatgrass thrives. In Springfield, there’s some sagebrush coming back in the beleaguered Deserts population area, but BLM targets the land for permanent water sites.

Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area Pipeline, Troughs, Fencing, Longer Spring Grazing – Upper Pahsimeroi and Goldburg Allotments

The recent Challis BLM Upper Pahsimeroi and Goldburg allotment permit renewal decision authorized more projects in Priority Sage-grouse habitat also identified as Focal habitat. Focal habitat is Priority habitat maximally important for the bird’s survival. One of the rancher-proposed projects, only a quarter mile from a lek, would scar the beautiful Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area, to satisfy the grass greed of a wealthy ranching operation. It impacts the Mountain Valleys Sage-grouse population. BLM allows grazing to start two weeks earlier in spring, expanding cattle disturbance during nesting.

The rancher assault on the WSA would gut a spring, pipe water away to troughs and build an eyesore wooden fence – perfect for chick eaters to perch on and scan the sage – around a cow-beat meadow. Troughs to be sited on a small bench would obliterate an area of extremely dense Pygmy Rabbit sign and burrows, and lovely old growth sagebrush. Cows converging on water would collapse burrows, and quickly break down the dense structurally complex sagebrush the rabbits require. Additional cow projects would be built outside the WSA in the Carlson Slump area, and the decision includes water hauling to unidentified sites. Water hauling is a gateway drug to future permanent pipelines.

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Burnt Creek WSA with the Lost River Range and Forest Borah Peak roadless area in the background. The spring to be developed is in the center of the photo. A pipeline is to cut across the slope to a trough site, through the unbroken expanse of sage. The Challis RMP requires BLM to manage the WSA in the most protective visual category (VRM 1). BLM’s NEPA analysis flat out lies and claims the project would comply.

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Desertification progressing in the stringer meadow below the spring due to cattle trampling, converting a Sage-grouse meadow to a dry upland site.

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Large hummocks drying out wetland soil torn apart from previous years cattle trampling. During what should have been the runoff peak, there was only a bit of surface water in the willows an no flow outside. To get enough to pipe away would require significant disturbance, yet BLM authorized robbing water for the pipeline.

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This is the kind of fence BLM plans to build in the WSA using “natural materials”. Surely no one will notice an eyesore like this, especially once cows trail on the sideslope baring soils. This particular fence was built to keep cows out of Threatened Bull Trout habitat in Burnt Creek. In 2020, I documented over a dozen of the ranching operation’s bulls inside the Burnt Creek exclosure in Bull Trout spawning season when trampling can destroy redds in vulnerable small streams, and also severe impacts to the WSA elsewhere including off the charts damage to native fish habitat in Short Creek in another allotment grazed by this operation.

In its Upper Pahsimeroi NEPA review, BLM adopted the rancher’s grazing application alternative that included the cow projects. Challis has a history of attempting to despoil the WSA for cattlemen. The land health analysis falsely portrays allotment conditions. It claims, based on outdated improperly conducted lentic spring assessments that health standards are met. Nearly all the springs, many in the WSA, that BLM failed to properly evaluate are degraded, as are large areas of lower elevation sagebrush communities outside the WSA.

The Quaking Aspen pipelines, Twin Buttes spring sheep grazing, and the Pahsimeroi projects were authorized by Idaho Falls District Offices this spring during the Biden administration. The Trump-appointed State Office BLM Director, John Ruhs, remains in place. Now in June, BLM just released a new proposed decision for the Simplot Dickshooter operation in the Owyhee Canyonlands Big Springs allotment in Sage-grouse Priority and Focal habitat, aiming to renew the permit with 10,000+ AUMs, despite an average actual annual cow use of 3,779 AUMs, plus build more fences in part of the largest block of Focal habitat in the world. This is a sorry repeat of a similar decision issued last year and then pulled back.

Agency culture is to concede to rancher desires and cover up grazing harms. Recent reports on the interlocking climate and biodiversity crises, and the general mess we’re in, describe a need for transformative change. Unless the federal government’s extraordinarily subsidized and lax livestock grazing program gets transformed out of existence, Sage-grouse and many other species don’t stand a chance. BLM now says it will review updates to the 2015 Sage-grouse plans in coming months. A seismic shift is needed, not mere updates to fundamentally flawed plans that triage habitat away and allow all manner of land abuse to continue, and increase. Of course, ESA listing is needed, but must be accompanied by serious reform of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

PLEASE SHOW THE IMAGE WITH THIS LINK

https://youtu.be/-yTWAogrCh0

Fuelbreaks: Habitat Fragmentation and Mowing “Take” of Birds

While the spring cow grazing scene in the Big Desert was bad enough, to my horror, BLM contractors had been out mowing down sagebrush in early May along every road that wasn’t a two track, perfectly timed to coincide with the peak Sage-grouse nesting period, and when many migratory birds are nesting.

 

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This old growth sagebrush in the Quaking Aspen allotment had provided complex nesting structure for Sage Thrasher, Brewers Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow and Sage-grouse. Despite BLM claims of many leks in the area, the fence in the background has no avian visibility markers. Fence markers are one of the “mitigation” measures agencies use to claim fences won’t have a big impact and shouldn’t be removed. Even with markers, some birds still collide with fences and die, the shiny material soon falls off, and markers are invisible in snow.

Around 8 years ago, BLM had mowed off mature and old growth sagebrush along many roads between Craters and INL to create fuelbreaks. Now in May 2021, during peak Sage-grouse nesting, tractors had been driving cross-country slashing and smashing down sage that had grown back up. Pockets of beautiful old growth sagebrush had escaped the first assault. But not this one. Perhaps these were cultural or Pygmy Rabbit areas that were to have been avoided during the initial sage purge?

This, folks, is what BLM’s 11,000 mile Fuelbreak EIS and 38.5 million acre Restoration EIS

project treatments, issued under Trump, have in store for public lands. See this press release, with William Perry Pendley extolling both the Fuelbreak and Restoration EIS using “working rangelands” jargon now embraced in Biden’s 30×30 report. Sagebrush mowing is one of the many Orwellian practices in the Restoration EIS. The only thing being restored is cattle access to grass sheltered by the live sage plant structure.

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How many bird nests did Idaho Falls BLM’s spring mowing spree “take”- Sage-grouse, Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Sagebrush Sparrows? I haven’t seen the contracts, but information at a commercial contractor website appears to show that spring mowing was anticipated. This took place over dozens, and perhaps 100+ miles or more on both sides of roads.

As with all other wildlife measures, BLM decision language to prevent take of migratory birds and other wildlife in projects has gotten looser and looser over the past 20 years. Decision used to specify a clear avoidance time period. Now a time period is often left to the discretion of biologists (and range and fuels staff always win out over biologists) , or it’s claimed a biologist will look for nests and they’ll be avoided. This is absurd. It’s very difficult to detect nests of migratory birds, and completely unrealistic at any scale.

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Sage was mowed down perpendicular to the Goodale’s Cut-off, an Oregon Trail route. where wagon ruts are still visible. Look at how little green vegetation had grown this spring.

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Male grouse feather I pulled from splintered sage and fluffed up. They’re well-insulated birds, able to endure biting winters. What they can’t withstand is what we’re doing to their sagebrush habitats, “management” overwhelmingly favoring the livestock industry, and endless treatments like these fuelbreaks that distract the public from the urgent need to protect and heal habitat, reduce disturbance, and find an effective way to deal with cheatgrass.

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Nevada Dept. of Wildlife http://www.ndow.org/Species/Birds/Sage-grouse/

photo .

Katie Fite is Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

KICK ’EM WHEN THEY’RE DOWN: BLM PUSHES SAGE-GROUSE TOWARDS EXTINCTION

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An apt motto for BLM’s Sage-grouse habitat management across the West would be Kick ‘Em When They’re Down. The agency’s grazing program is dead set on locking in everything that’s bad for the birds. Cattle water projects and fences ripping apart habitats continue to proliferate across public lands. The livestock industry is driving this. Grazing permittees submit applications to BLM prodding authorization of facility construction binges. Instead of saying flat out No, BLM obsequiously obliges, fine-tuning NEPA documents to support rancher demands. In its grazing permit renewal NEPA processes, the servile agency evaluates often outrageous rancher-submitted grazing schemes and wish-lists of projects as legitimate alternatives and follows the rancher lead in finalizing decisions. Alternatives submitted by environmental groups are spurned.

Cover ups of land damage pervade land health assessments. Facility development and chaotic flexible grazing schemes are endorsed as cure-alls for any problems found. Assessments portray conditions as meeting health standards or improving, with projects needed to patch over rough spots. The cowering agency’s endless concessions to ranchers are rapidly digging a deep grave for declining sagebrush wildlife. As it cements in more permanent facilities, in addition to the plethora of existing ones, BLM is helping the public lands livestock industry drive Sage-grouse extinct.

Water developments have many harmful impacts to the sagebrush ecosystem. They expand the area grazed, intensify livestock damage to surrounding vegetation communities and protective soil crusts, attract mesopredators, and fragment habitat. Flammable weeds thrive in disturbance zones. Stagnant pipeline troughs and stock ponds harbor mosquitoes that may transmit West Nile virus. Fences cause outright wildlife injury and death (bird collisions, big game barriers and entanglement), and they concentrate livestock leading to similar woes as water developments.

As Sage-grouse fade away under multiple abuse management, they’ll no longer be a bother to ranchers and other public land profiteers. Alarmingly, the Biden administration’s recent 30×30 America the Beautiful report promises more of the same. It gushes over a “working lands” paradigm antithetical to wild lands preservation and species protection.

The livestock industry and allies in BLM wouldn’t be purposefully trying to drive the birds extinct, would they? Remember, this is the same industry that wages a take no prisoners Forever War on native predators. An entire federal agency, Wildlife Services, is at their beck and call snuffing out bothersome native animals – Prairie Dogs, Badgers, Coyotes, Bobcats, Grizzly Bears, Ravens, Wolves.

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Pipeline troughs in Quaking Aspen allotment near Craters of the Moon. BLM points to cow plumbing networks like this as sterling examples of what it hopes to achieve by punching in dozens more miles of pipelines. Big Southern Butte, a massive rhyolite dome in this lava landscape, mystically looks on.

Grouse Population Drops Trip Plan Triggers, Habitat Gets Upgraded, BLM Leaps into Action to Trash Upgraded Habitat

Idaho Falls BLM recently authorized a plethora of new water developments in the Quaking Aspen and Deadman allotments southeast of Arco, an area with minimal natural surface water generally referred to as the Big Desert. It includes both BLM and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) lands. INL is a nuclear research site that rakes in federal dollars for eastern Idaho. The Site, as it’s called, has waste disposal issues and aquifer contamination. Much of INL is grazed, and BLM oversees the cattle and sheep. Portions of Quaking Aspen allotment extend into Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve to the west. The broader landscape, especially where sheep grazing occurs, is notorious for Wildlife Services gunning down and slaying native predators, in advance of livestock being turned out to graze. Pre-emptive strikes take place without a single “depredation” having occurred. Born a Coyote? Guilty as charged.

Sage-grouse populations have plunged as the grazing/weed/wildfire/rehab fiasco cycle repeats itself. Low Sage-grouse numbers and habitat loss have now tripped population decline trigger thresholds established by the 2015 Sage-grouse plans for both the Desert Conservation Area (Quaking Aspen and part of Deadman) and adjacent Mountain Valleys Area (another portion of Deadman. Here’s a poignant account (with fine photos) from spring 2021 in eastern Idaho by long-time lek observer, columnist Bill Schleiss:

There was a lonely single cock standing regally on a rock and it scrunched down as I positioned my truck where I have for over 20 years. Ten years ago, that ridge was the dancing place for over 100 cocks displaying for the hens as they would come to lek.

But on Thursday morning, just one showed up and his sporadic displays did not entice any hens or even another lonely male to show up”.

The 2015 Obama administration Jewell era grouse plans currently in force (litigation overturned the rather modest Trump changes) segregate habitat into Priority, Important and General categories. This form of triage makes little sense for a landscape species going downhill fast. A new USGS report admits to an 80% range-wide decline since 1965, but who knows how great the loss really is – given much more intensive lek counting in recent years vs. the less intensive efforts of the past.

When population decline triggers are tripped because of significant loss of winter or breeding habitat, and/or populations cross a threshold, BLM upgrades Important habitat to the supposedly more protective Priority status. The new pipelines will be built in areas that were pigeonholed as Important habitat on BLM areas. Now elevated to Priority status, the habitat is supposed to receive a higher level of protection. The INL pipeline lengths are under a voluntary Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances with Fish and Wildlife Service, whose Idaho staff have at times made egregious concessions to the livestock industry. Unfortunately, the main assurance with these collaborative agreements is that the birds get the short end of the stick, and development proceeds apace. INL uses Key and Restoration habitat categories, based on a 2006 state plan.

The pipeline NEPA analysis describes:

Lek routes within both IHMA and PHMA in the Idaho Desert Conservation Area have had a population decline of more than 20% from the baseline and have caused an adaptive management trigger to be tripped … all protections and limitations associated with PHMA will now be applied to IHMA within the entire Conservation Area. There are 25 known sage-grouse leks within four miles of the proposed project area … information from 2019 indicates that 19 of these leks are occupied … The current three-year average of males counted on these lek routes have both shown a decrease from the 2011 baseline population”.

Habitat was segregated as Important to begin with because there were issues (reduced sage, crested wheat, recovery needs), and because the default mode of state and federal agencies is to whittle down any protection as much as possible and triage habitat away to reduce rancher and politician ire at constraints on public land abuse.

Now, rather than acting to try to recover the sagebrush community as disaster looms, the “better” agency management sacrifices a large block of habitat to 27 miles of permanent pipelines; 16 trough sites, each with several troughs; a new well drilled into the declining aquifer (will they hit an INL nuke waste plume?); a trough watered from an INL monitoring well; and 3+ miles of new fence for birds to collide with and die. BLM claims troughs would be located where water hauling occurred in the past, or at salt sites or old sheep bedding areas. It never reveals which sites are which, how much past water hauling was authorized, or the extent of past degradation. Nor does it compare the much greater disturbance footprint of permanent water sites vs. salt or bedding sites.

The situation boils down to this: BLM’s response to a Sage-grouse population in crisis is to accelerate depletion of a large block of land by building new infrastructure to intensify cattle exploitation. In 2020, a multi-agency report laid out problems facing the Desert population. It found a serious threat of cheatgrass and highlighted the regions’ huge amount of crested wheatgrass. This coarse exotic cattle forage continues to be densely seeded by using the agency’s severely flawed post-wildfire rehab “emergency stabilization” as an excuse. BLM refuses to remove crested wheat, or at a minimum, inter-plant sagebrush. The report link promptly went dead after I included it in our project appeal.

Killer Troughs

The lethal effects of over 1 million kilometers of fences in Western rural and public lands to wildlife are becoming better known to the public. Troughs too are wildlife killers, especially of smaller animals. Water subsidies allow exotic species to penetrate wild lands where they would be largely absent, disrupting ecological processes, out-competing native species and generally causing trouble. Troughs also promote mesopredators and disease.

BLM claims new pipeline trenches ripped into lava rock country with heavy equipment will run right along roads. In justifying the project, BLM brandishes a 2015 Sage-grouse plan provision that says to route pipelines along roads. This illustrates how fundamentally flawed the grouse plans are. Instead of saying Hey – we need to remove tens of thousands of miles of existing pipelines and troughs in sagebrush habitat and cut grazing so the land can heal before cheatgrass overruns everything, the plans legitimize business-as-usual facility expansion and intensified grazing in general. Even severe levels of grazing abuse can be justified under these plans if it is labeled “targeted grazing” of cheatgrass.

BLM also falls back on antiquated land use plans (the 1983 Big Lost MFP and 1985 Medicine Lodge RMP) because they allocate grazing use here. They’re from the era when BLM actively killed sagebrush and admitted it was done for livestock forage, instead of the lies the agency tells these days to justify its apocalyptic “restoration treatments” . Expansion of water troughs in uplands allows livestock to more intensively exploit remnant less grazed sites, further harming native biodiversity.

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Stagnant water provides breeding sites for mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus, lethal to Sage-grouse and migratory birds. Note the narrow little escape ramp that drowning animals who fall in when troughs are full are to somehow know to navigate towards. (Quaking Aspen allotment).

Insects are attracted to trough water and drown. In hot weather, troughs become clogged with mats of algae, which ensures that an animal that falls in won’t escape. (Spruce allotment, Nevada).

A picture containing ground, outdoor, nature, stone Description automatically generated When you’re out on public lands, look in troughs. I’ll forego images of decomposing birds, bats, chipmunks and lizards. This bat was trapped – slipping off the trough side as it tried to climb out, far from the escape ladder. I got it on a board and placed the board partly in the sun. The lumps on its tail are dirt stuck to wet fur when it fell off as I set the board down. Later I learned that many bat species need a drop of 2 ft. below to take flight, so it may not have survived. Animal encounters like this make me seethe with anger at the waste of wildlife caused by every aspect of public lands ranching, and the fact that a mere 18,000 BLM and 6000 Forest Service permittees (often one and the same) are responsible for a great ecological tragedy playing out across the West claiming more victims every day. (Spruce allotment, Nevada).

Priority Habitat Crawling with Cows in Spring during the Megadrought

This landscape is thick with livestock turned out to graze on public land in spring, devouring nest screening grass cover, disturbing nests and flushing hens, breaking off sagebrush, busting up broods, and attracting egg and chick eaters. When I looked at the existing pipelines in early May, cattle were churning up clouds of dust, consuming the sparse bit of grass and wildflower green up. Plants that normally would have dozens of blooms were lucky to muster a flower or two. Insects associated with flowers are critical to precocial Sage-grouse chicks. Spring livestock grazing generates bountiful subsidies for species like Ravens, Foxes, Coyotes – manure, carrion, afterbirth – (newborn calves were present), livestock supplements, and water in troughs. They then get scapegoated, cast as villains causing declines. BLM’s monitoring of livestock forage use in spring is perfectly timed to hide the amount of grass cover livestock consume, and how much cover was actually present when birds were nesting. Use is measured after the grazing period or growing season ends. Yet livestock repeatedly graze down the same plants. BLM then points to low measured use levels to justify continued high livestock numbers in grazing evaluations.

Heaping On Spring Sheep Conflicts – Twin Buttes Allotment Permit Renewal

BLM also just authorized increased spring sheep grazing in a permit renewal decision for the immense 270,000 acre Twin Buttes allotment (public land south of Mud Lake and large portions of INL in the Deserts grouse population area). Sheep herds can now be turned out a month earlier, starting on March 1, so thousands of sheep, herder camps, guard dogs, temporary water troughs, trucks hauling water and driving on top of sagebrush will be present throughout the entire lek and nesting periods. Ranchers can also switch some fall grazing to spring, increasing conflicts with Sage-grouse needs for undisturbed springtime space.

BLM claims the sheep will be herded away from sage. I’ve been out in Twin Buttes in spring and seen how herding compliance works there. Seven years ago I was looking at sites proposed for a livestock industry-hatched Raven poisoning “experiment” to boost Sage-grouse numbers. A wildfire area was supposed to be closed to grazing. Sheep manure and tracks were all over the burn, and the first green wisps of regrowth grazed down.

Siddoway sheep operations control the bulk of Twin Buttes grazing. Jeff Siddoway is a long-time predator-hating Idaho state senator (surely it was pure coincidence that Twin Buttes was to be part of a poisoning project) who had finally retired from the legislature. But this year, Siddoway subbed when Covid side-lined his successor. He seized the opportunity to introduce the initial version of the 2021 Idaho Wolf eradication bill. Then the anti-mask lawmakers had to suspend the session due to a Covid outbreak. Regrettably, it resumed, and an even worse version of the Wolf deathfest bill sailed through and was signed by rancher Governor Brad Little.

Hammering Habitat Recovering from Fire – Springfield Allotment Pipelines

Before the Appeal period had ended for the Quaking Aspen-Deadman pipeline, BLM sent out a scoping notice for more rancher-desired pipelines in the Big Desert – 9 new more miles and 4 permanent water trough sites in the Springfield allotment. The notice wallowed in the fact there had been past fires, to get a reader to write the habitat off. Then it revealed:

“… an area is considered to be recovered to key habitat if it contains a sagebrush canopy cover of 10% or greater” …11,124 acres have been surveyed, and 9,904 acres have a sagebrush canopy cover of 10% or greater, and can be re-designated as Key habitat.Key habitat is described as areas of generally intact sagebrush that provide habitat during some portion of the year … “there are 16 known leks within 4 miles of the proposed project area … BLM lands within the Springfield allotment are considered both IHMA, PHMA for sage-grouse and key habitat”.

BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service love to hide behind fire as the cause for Sage-grouse declines but they ignore how livestock grazing and BLM management primes the land for fire (cheatgrass invasion, dense crested wheat that fires whip through, fire rehab failures). Rancher pressure to quickly resume grazing thwarts effective native recovery after fires, and cheatgrass thrives. In Springfield, there’s some sagebrush coming back in the beleaguered Deserts population area, but BLM targets the land for permanent water sites.

Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area Pipeline, Troughs, Fencing, Longer Spring Grazing – Upper Pahsimeroi and Goldburg Allotments

The recent Challis BLM Upper Pahsimeroi and Goldburg allotment permit renewal decision authorized more projects in Priority Sage-grouse habitat also identified as Focal habitat. Focal habitat is Priority habitat maximally important for the bird’s survival. One of the rancher-proposed projects, only a quarter mile from a lek, would scar the beautiful Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area, to satisfy the grass greed of a wealthy ranching operation. It impacts the Mountain Valleys Sage-grouse population. BLM allows grazing to start two weeks earlier in spring, expanding cattle disturbance during nesting.

The rancher assault on the WSA would gut a spring, pipe water away to troughs and build an eyesore wooden fence – perfect for chick eaters to perch on and scan the sage – around a cow-beat meadow. Troughs to be sited on a small bench would obliterate an area of extremely dense Pygmy Rabbit sign and burrows, and lovely old growth sagebrush. Cows converging on water would collapse burrows, and quickly break down the dense structurally complex sagebrush the rabbits require. Additional cow projects would be built outside the WSA in the Carlson Slump area, and the decision includes water hauling to unidentified sites. Water hauling is a gateway drug to future permanent pipelines.

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Burnt Creek WSA with the Lost River Range and Forest Borah Peak roadless area in the background. The spring to be developed is in the center of the photo. A pipeline is to cut across the slope to a trough site, through the unbroken expanse of sage. The Challis RMP requires BLM to manage the WSA in the most protective visual category (VRM 1). BLM’s NEPA analysis flat out lies and claims the project would comply.

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Desertification progressing in the stringer meadow below the spring due to cattle trampling, converting a Sage-grouse meadow to a dry upland site.

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Large hummocks drying out wetland soil torn apart from previous years cattle trampling. During what should have been the runoff peak, there was only a bit of surface water in the willows an no flow outside. To get enough to pipe away would require significant disturbance, yet BLM authorized robbing water for the pipeline.

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This is the kind of fence BLM plans to build in the WSA using “natural materials”. Surely no one will notice an eyesore like this, especially once cows trail on the sideslope baring soils. This particular fence was built to keep cows out of Threatened Bull Trout habitat in Burnt Creek. In 2020, I documented over a dozen of the ranching operation’s bulls inside the Burnt Creek exclosure in Bull Trout spawning season when trampling can destroy redds in vulnerable small streams, and also severe impacts to the WSA elsewhere including off the charts damage to native fish habitat in Short Creek in another allotment grazed by this operation.

In its Upper Pahsimeroi NEPA review, BLM adopted the rancher’s grazing application alternative that included the cow projects. Challis has a history of attempting to despoil the WSA for cattlemen. The land health analysis falsely portrays allotment conditions. It claims, based on outdated improperly conducted lentic spring assessments that health standards are met. Nearly all the springs, many in the WSA, that BLM failed to properly evaluate are degraded, as are large areas of lower elevation sagebrush communities outside the WSA.

The Quaking Aspen pipelines, Twin Buttes spring sheep grazing, and the Pahsimeroi projects were authorized by Idaho Falls District Offices this spring during the Biden administration. The Trump-appointed State Office BLM Director, John Ruhs, remains in place. Now in June, BLM just released a new proposed decision for the Simplot Dickshooter operation in the Owyhee Canyonlands Big Springs allotment in Sage-grouse Priority and Focal habitat, aiming to renew the permit with 10,000+ AUMs, despite an average actual annual cow use of 3,779 AUMs, plus build more fences in part of the largest block of Focal habitat in the world. This is a sorry repeat of a similar decision issued last year and then remanded.

Agency culture is to concede to rancher desires and cover up grazing harms. Recent reports on the interlocking climate and biodiversity crises, and the general mess we’re in, describe a need for transformative change. Unless the federal government’s extraordinarily subsidized and lax livestock grazing program gets transformed out of existence, Sage-grouse and many other species don’t stand a chance. BLM now says it will review updates to the 2015 Sage-grouse plans in coming months. A seismic shift is needed, not mere updates to fundamentally flawed plans that triage habitat away and allow all manner of land abuse to continue, and increase. Of course, ESA listing is needed, but must be accompanied by serious reform of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

PLEASE SHOW THE IMAGE WITH THIS LINK

https://youtu.be/-yTWAogrCh0

Fuelbreaks: Habitat Fragmentation and Mowing “Take” of Birds

While the spring cow grazing scene in the Big Desert was bad enough, to my horror, BLM contractors had been out mowing down sagebrush in early May along every road that wasn’t a two track, perfectly timed to coincide with the peak Sage-grouse nesting period, and when many migratory birds are nesting.

 

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This old growth sagebrush in the Quaking Aspen allotment had provided complex nesting structure for Sage Thrasher, Brewers Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow and Sage-grouse. Despite BLM claims of many leks in the area, the fence in the background has no avian visibility markers. Fence markers are one of the “mitigation” measures agencies use to claim fences won’t have a big impact and shouldn’t be removed. Even with markers, some birds still collide with fences and die, the shiny material soon falls off, and markers are invisible in snow.

Around 8 years ago, BLM had mowed off mature and old growth sagebrush along many roads between Craters and INL to create fuelbreaks. Now in May 2021, during peak Sage-grouse nesting, tractors had been driving cross-country slashing and smashing down sage that had grown back up. Pockets of beautiful old growth sagebrush had escaped the first assault. But not this one. Perhaps these were cultural or Pygmy Rabbit areas that were to have been avoided during the initial sage purge?

This, folks, is what BLM’s 11,000 mile Fuelbreak EIS and 38.5 million acre Restoration EIS

project treatments, issued under Trump, have in store for public lands. See this press release, with William Perry Pendley extolling both the Fuelbreak and Restoration EIS using “working rangelands” jargon now embraced in Biden’s 30×30 report. Sagebrush mowing is one of the many Orwellian practices in the Restoration EIS. The only thing being restored is cattle access to grass sheltered by the live sage plant structure.

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How many bird nests did Idaho Falls BLM’s spring mowing spree “take”- Sage-grouse, Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Sagebrush Sparrows? I haven’t seen the contracts, but information at a commercial contractor website appears to show that spring mowing was anticipated. This took place over dozens, and perhaps 100+ miles or more on both sides of roads.

As with all other wildlife measures, BLM decision language to prevent take of migratory birds and other wildlife in projects has gotten looser and looser over the past 20 years. Decision used to specify a clear avoidance time period. Now a time period is often left to the discretion of biologists (and range and fuels staff always win out over biologists) , or it’s claimed a biologist will look for nests and they’ll be avoided. This is absurd. It’s very difficult to detect nests of migratory birds, and completely unrealistic at any scale.

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Sage was mowed down perpendicular to the Goodale’s Cut-off, an Oregon Trail route. where wagon ruts are still visible. Look at how little green vegetation had grown this spring.

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Male grouse feather I pulled from splintered sage and fluffed up. They’re well-insulated birds, able to endure biting winters. What they can’t withstand is what we’re doing to their sagebrush habitats, “management” overwhelmingly favoring the livestock industry, and endless treatments like these fuelbreaks that distract the public from the urgent need to protect and heal habitat, reduce disturbance, and find an effective way to deal with cheatgrass.

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Nevada Dept. of Wildlife http://www.ndow.org/Species/Birds/Sage-grouse/

photo .

Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

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