I have never seen a 500-page environmental assessment. But the Bureau of Land Management is poised to release one this week on its renewal of several grazing allotments in Owyhee County.
You can expect this document to land with a thud on Idaho’s political landscape. It analyzes the effects of grazing on sage grouse and bighorn sheep, not just on the 252,000 acres, but on the entire landscape.
It is a part of renewal package the BLM was ordered to conduct by U.S. District Judge B Lynn Winmill after a lawsuit by Western Watersheds Project, the group whose state aim is to force ranchers off of public land. So it starts out in a polarized political landscape.
Add the Winmill-imposed deadline of 2015 for developing conservation plans to protect sage grouse so they are not listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and you have a tough challenge for the BLM.
Usually environmental assessments are about 20 pages long and they outline alternatives in cases where agencies expect to get a “finding of no significant impact,” or in the agency gibberish, “FONSI.” If the agency thinks there may be impacts, then they do a full blown environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.
So a 500-page environmental assessment is both an act of confidence and an act of covering its rear. The BLM has until 2013 to finish all of 75 of the permit renewals and anywhere it can cut out a step saves it time.
The BLM’s measuring post is its Idaho standards for rangeland health, a series of guidelines to ensure that the desert ecosystem is functioning at a landscape level. These are fairly general but determine if the native grasses and shrubs are healthy, the stream-side areas and watersheds are thriving and that especially sage grouse habitat is protected.
Based on these standards, large portions of the four allotments analyzed in the current assessment do not meet those standards under current management. So the assessment goes through five alternatives ranging from no action to Western Watershed’s dream, no grazing to get them back to health.
Among those alternatives is a rancher-proposed alternative that would actually increase grazing on two of the allotments. But two alternatives are likely the real choices based on the analysis.
One would keep grazing numbers at what they are now while another would keep cattle out of sage grouse habitat during the critical seasons of use, a 50 percent cut in available forage. In both of these if the ranchers are not able to meet the rangeland health standards two years in a row out of five of the permit issuance, the permit is revoked and tougher measures are required.
This is tougher than Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed sage grouse plan so you can bet he and the state will weigh in. The public also will have 30 days beginning Friday.
But while the BLM will listen, its audience for this is really only one man – Winmill. I hope he's ready for some late-night reading.