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PINEDALE – The Forest Service’s circuit of public meetings to explain sage-grouse details, answer questions and accept feedback landed in Pinedale on Tuesday, Oct. 23, with a small audience representing varied interests.
John Shivik, FS national sage-grouse coordinator based in Ogden, Utah, first explained why the Forest Service feels the “purpose and need” to amend the bird’s management in western states.
Working with the Bureau of Land Management’s version and state policies like Wyoming, Shivik said, gives proposed amendments “enough consistency and guidance” for decision makers to address situations in sage-grouse habitat – and also have flexibility for local conditions.
“I think we thread the needle really well with these plans here,” he said.
The Forest Service, BLM and Wyoming are updating and coordinating new data, maps and research “while thinking about the big picture of conservation,” he said.
Shivik said the Forest Service does want feedback from the public and stakeholders and staff were prepared to answer questions and take comments at Tuesday night’s open house.
He advised approaching the massive DEIS by downloading it, going to Chapter 2 and looking for the section on Wyoming. Each state’s section will be different.
“You don’t need to read everything to get the gist,” he said. “Chapter 2 is really the guts of it … with state by state tables.”
Under “Wyoming” are the current 2015 standards and guidelines on FS sage-grouse habitat next to proposed changes.
Sagebrush focal areas
There are several big changes in the DEIS, Shivik explained.
One is the removal of “sagebrush focal areas,” which new maps show overlapping with priority habitat management areas, he said.
“All of the protections on sagebrush focal areas are also on priority habitat management areas,” Shivik said. “… The Forest Service had two sets of designations for the same lands. This simplifies it.”
Also, the FS updated its priority habitat maps with Wyoming’s and removed acreage based on new data. The DEIS shows less priority habitat acreage “ but we haven’t swapped out huge areas of prime habitat.”
Under the 2015 plan, the Forest Service, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies must unanimously approve a project.
In the DEIS, if an energy project – a power lines, well or other development – is proposed on an unleased parcel, the district ranger would get the application and check to see if it is on general or priority habitat lands.
“If it’s ‘general,’ there is a list of standards and guidelines. If it is ‘priority,’ there is a list of standards and guidelines. They would assess (habitat) in the field … and say (the application) is suitable or unsuitable. The first thing they have to do is go there.”
For example, a power line proposed in sage-grouse habitat and a mule deer migration corridor could follow an alternate route a half-mile away if needed.
In effect now
Shivik also explained that the 2015 policies stay in place until the FS signs final records of decisions next year.
A woman in the audience told him, “ I confess – I am one of those people who sent in a form letter comment.”
She gets her information from an organization that she supports “and I heard they canceled the 2015 plan completely. … I’m here because I want to find out what’s really going on.”
She was told the 2015 plan “was created to prevent sage-grouse from being listed and because it wasn’t listed, they got rid of the plan.”
“One of the biggest difficulties is people being afraid of things that aren’t there,” Shivik said. “We haven’t started all over again; we haven’t thrown anything out. … The ultimate solution is to work with states and groups for a middle ground. Hopefully we’ve made it better.”
Jim Magagna from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association asked Shivik about Forest Service grazing permits on hold – “To this point the Forest Service has delayed grazing decisions from 2015 and they are likely delayed until 2020?”
“Right now our (grazing) plans are our 2015 plans until these (DEIS) amendments take effect,” Shivik said.
The FS previously made a timeline for permit renewals by 2018 but “made an administrative change to stay in a holding pattern with the 2015 plan,” he added.
FS range managers work with permittees, who appear to have created good sage-grouse conditions – “If we’re doing our job, it’s good for the bird, and if it’s good for the bird, it’s good for the herd, right?”
The comment period for the FS sage-grouse DEIS closes on Jan. 3, 2019. Comments will be evaluated and the final EIS and draft records of decision for each state are expected by late February, which then kicks off a 60-day objection period. If that process goes smoothly, a final ROD could be out from April to July.