Idaho will try to write a sage grouse plan with enough teeth to keep the bird off of the federal Endangered Species list.
Members of Gov. Butch Otter’s administration outline their plans Monday before a joint session of the House and Senate environment and resources committees. The Office of Species Conservation is leading the effort that will work with groups across the state to draft a plan in the next four months.
Otter’s initiative comes after a 2010 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that listing of the two-foot tall bird as a threatened species was warranted, but not as high a priority as protecting other species. A court agreement gave the federal agency until 2015 to review its decision.
Federal officials told Otter that the state’s voluntary efforts to improve sage grouse habitat will not be adequate “regulatory mechanisms” to ensure the desert birds survive. Since more than half of sage grouse habitat is on BLM land, the agency is working on its own plans that Nate Fisher, administrator of the Office of Species Conservation said would likely be “overbearing, broad-brushed and unnecessary.
“These restrictions could become onerous,” Fisher said.
Ultimately Fisher said Otter sought to develop a plan that is “biologically driven, legally defensible and politically palatable." But a few lawmakers raised questions about whether that is possible.
“You should not punish those landowners who have active leks (mating grounds) and good populations,” said Rogerson Republican Sen. Bert Brackett, a prominent rancher in sage grouse territory.
Idaho is modeling its efforts on Wyoming, which approved a plan to protect “core areas” of sage grouse habitat while allowing development in other areas with practices designed to reduce the impact on grouse. The Wyoming plan was done under an executive order of the governor but Fisher said the Legislature could codify the Idaho plan next session.
Oakley Republican Rep. Scott Bedke, also a rancher, expressed concern that Idaho may have to do more to offset the Wyoming plan.
“Is Idaho being set up to be the mitigation state?” Bedke asked.
Former Department of Interior solicitor Bill Myers, a Boise attorney, expressed concerns that plans to prevent listing could end up being as hard on ranchers and others as a listing itself. But he said states that delay developing their own plan may have less flexibility than states like Wyoming that get their plans done early.
I certainly wouldn’t want to be the last state to write a plan,” Myers said.
The possibility of listing of the sage grouse, which is still hunted in Idaho, came from a series of lawsuits filed by groups including the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project. Kate Fite, a biologist for the group, said the Wyoming “core habitat” model won’t work in Idaho because its habitat is more fragmented.
Since ranchers like Brackett will have veto power over an Idaho plan she is skeptical it can pass legal muster.
“They are going to have to be honest about grazing impacts,” Fite said.
But Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore was more optimistic even though grouse numbers have trended down.
“My personal opinion is we’ve got plenty of birds out there,” Moore said. “The issue is protecting them over a number of a years.”