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Sage Grouse ruffles feathers
Land grab could affect prospecting in Wyoming
By SARAH REIJONEN For the GPAA
The Bureau of Land Management Office out of Lander, Wyo. has proposed a Resource Management Plan that requests the mineral withdrawal of nearly half a million acres.
If the RMP is approved, existing mining claims, including two 160-acre Gold Prospectors Association of America claims, would fall under review for viability, said BLM Geologist Tom Sunderland. In addition, BLM would not allow any new claims to be filed within the withdrawn area.
“The plan isn’t withdrawing the area, it’s only proposing those areas for withdrawal, and actually, withdrawing is a decision made at the Washington level,” Sunderland said. “Then we would have to … put together a mineral report of the area, which describes all the existing claims and kind of the potential minerals there within the area proposed for withdrawal. If the Washington office approves of us pursuing withdrawal of those areas we would begin claim validity examination of those areas and the claims themselves.”
Either way, Sunderland said small-scale mining would still be permitted because it falls under the definition of a “casual use,” which has been outlined in conjunction with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Land Office.
“It doesn’t really change anything as far as prospecting or other recreational opportunities,” Sunderland said. “Most people aren’t going to go prospecting unless they can actually stake a claim for something they might find … but it doesn’t limit prospecting or other recreation.”
Though Sunderland claims the withdrawal would not cause any change, the mere fact that miners would no longer be able to file claims shows a sure-fire loss of mineral rights along with the halt of other resource development.
The RMP came about with the expiration of the previous 20-year plan, which ended in 2006. BLM began drawing up a new plan in 2007 and finally published its proposal, favoring Alternative D, in 2011. Alternative D claims to “balance the use and conservation of planning area resources.”
However, Alternative D initiates many of the same restrictions as Alternative B, which predominantly aims to protect physical, biological and heritage resources and limit resource development. Although Alternative D is the proposed RMP, BLM Lander Field Office Environmental and Planning Coordinator Kristin Yannone said the “proposed plan has some things that are different from Alternative D,” but she was “not prepared” to share that information.
Sunderland said one of the main concerns for BLM was to create a RMP in conjunction with the Wyoming governor’s executive order for sage grouse conservation measures. Though BLM claims to have chosen Alternative D in accordance with the governor’s order, Gov. Matt Mead was most supportive of Alternative C, which called for increased resource development, according to an article in the Casper Journal. According to the article titled “County opposes BLM restrictions—Biggest issue is Moneta Divide development,” Mead was concerned with the “proposed reduction in cattle grazing” as well as “mineral development issues.”
Sage grouse at the heart of the withdrawal? The greater sage grouse has been a hot topic associated with the proposed withdrawal of the 449,068 acres in Wyoming, though Yannone said the two do not have a significant connection.
“There are no mineral withdrawals associated with the sage grouse,” she said.
Yannone later said, “99 percent of the BLM Lander Field Office contains sage grouse habitat and 70 percent of that is identified as priority habitat so any mineral withdrawal is likely to include sage grouse habitat.”
J. Wayne Burkhardt, professor emeritus at the University of Nevada-Reno, recently sat in on state committee meetings in Nevada, Wyoming and Utah as an interested public party looking to keep the sage grouse off the Endangered Species List.
“The sage grouse thing was just another environmental affront. The whole purpose of the state committees was to come up with state plans so they could hopefully head off a national listing. At this point Fish & Wildlife Services warrants listing, but it’s precluded by other higher priorities,” Burkhardt said. “And, after they came out with that, the environmentalists sued Fish & Wildlife Services and they got a federal judge to order that the Fish & Wildlife Service has to reconsider that in 2015 so it will be back up on the agenda, and that’s why the states were getting together to make a plan to head that off.”
Burkhardt said it helped to have a variety of interested parties present at the state committee meetings.
“At those state committees we had oil and gas people, we had hunters and a mix of people, and that’s why the environmentalists couldn’t run us over, so it definitely helps when you work together,” Burkhardt said.
Burkhardt, who taught range management, has been studying the sage grouse and potential threats to the birds since the mid-80s. He stands by more than 30 years of research that say the main threats to sage grouse are not humans or surface disturbance brought on by prospectors, but instead cheat grass and wildfires.
While BLM acknowledges cheat grass and wildfires as a threat, “A Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” produced by the Sage Grouse National Technical Team in December 2011 states, “Human land use, including tillage agriculture, historic grazing management, energy development, roads and power line infrastructure, and even recreation have contributed both individually and cumulatively to lower numbers of sage grouse across the range.” Natural predators But, Burkhardt contests that the third most detrimental threat is predators, namely ravens, coyotes and badgers, which raid sage grouse nests. Despite this common knowledge among ranchers, Fish & Wildlife Services has resisted the raven factor, Burkhardt said.
“They just fought recognizing that tooth and toenail,” he said. “There’s no way in hell they wanted to admit that the raven was a major cause of sage grouse decline, but they finally had to begrudgingly admit that it might have a little effect.”
When asked about the biggest detriment to sage grouse, Yannone, BLM’s own Environmental Coordinator in the Lander, Wyo. office said, “I’m not a biologist and I cannot offer a professional opinion on that.”
In the mid-80s, Burkhardt and a fellow professor, who studied wildlife, received a grant from Fish & Wildlife Services to study sage grouse on the Sheldon Antelope Range in northwest Nevada. Burkhardt and his colleague studied sage grouse habitat in grazed versus un-grazed areas as well as predation on sage grouse nests.
“The raven nest predation thing, hell, we put out artificial nests best we could under sage brush plants on the Sheldon Antelope Range and documented what happened to those,” Burkhardt said. “Hell, the ravens set up in the rim rocks, watched us put the nest in and by that evening they’d already cleaned the nests out. We put out like 150 nests and it was 100 percent failure.”
Still, Fish & Wildlife Services dismissed the threat of ravens, saying there was nothing the agency could do about it, Burkhardt said. He was told that the raven population is regulated by the migratory bird treaty with Mexico; therefore, Fish & Wildlife’s hands were tied.
“Fish & Wildlife biologists indicate that raven populations in the West have increased about 1,500 percent since settlement time, and that’s because of the additional food base from landfills, road kills, all of that stuff,” Burkhardt said. “But, they don’t want to do any raven control.” Animal poster child
The sage grouse falls in rank with other creatures that have been used as “poster children” for the political and environmental cause, Burkhardt said, citing the desert tortoise in the Mojave and the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.
“They did the same thing with the desert tortoise in the Mojave — listed the desert tortoise and used it to stop virtually all land use in the Mojave Desert on public lands,” he said. “And, the tortoise was the excuse, yet all the data showed that tortoise hatchlings, when they emerged from the burrow, the ravens just picked them up one at a time until they cleaned them out.”
Burkhardt said that historical journals dating back to the 1800s make no mention of the sage grouse.
“If you look at the historical record, from the early journals 1824-29, Peter Skene Ogden couldn’t even find sage grouse in this country,” Burkhardt said.
“The Indians he encountered — he talked to them, and hell, they were eating bugs and rats because they couldn’t find much else … the journal listed what the hunters managed to bring in and sometimes it was virtually nothing.”
When asked whether sage grouse is native to Wyoming, Yannone said, “I’m the wrong person to give you sage grouse history.
According to the science I’ve read, yes. Again, I’m not a sage grouse expert.”
Another catch in the push to list sage grouse as an endangered species is the fact that all four states, which held special committee meetings, still allow hunting of the bird. Though there is a limited number of birds one can take and a limited season, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho still allow the hunting of sage grouse, Burkhardt said.
“It’s really kind of amazing,” he said. “You know, they use the excuse of potential bird fatalities from flying into range fences or encounters with slow-moving vehicles on two-track roads; they use those as excuses for fear that there might be a mortality, then they go ahead and maintain the hunting. Tells you where they’re at. It’s a whole damn thing; it’s a ploy to control land use.”
Stan Harter, District Wildlife Biologist for Wyoming Game & Fish said hunting does not negatively impact the overall sage grouse population.
“My feeling is that the candidate listing of the ‘warranted but not precluded’ — that applies more to the sage grouse population and issues in other states. In Wyoming, sage grouse seem to be doing better than other states overall, so we don’t really feel like hunting is a permanent threat,” Harter said. “It’s not an added mortality figure toward the declines in sage grouse. We have enough birds that we can still sustain a harvest without having a negative impact on the populations overall.”
Fish & Wildlife won’t give any clout to raven predation and BLM is looking at the possibility of shutting down two-track roads for the sake of the sage grouse, but Wyoming Game & Fish openly sells hunting licenses for a short sage grouse season in September.
“How in the hell can a biologist with a straight face say that two-track dirt roads and three-wire range fences pose a threat to sage grouse, then turn around with a straight face and say hunting is no problem?” Burkhardt said. “It is amazing, and they aren’t even bashful about it. There’s money in it. Fish & Game are in the business of selling hunting licenses and there’s a hell of a sportsman contingency, a political contingency, that wants to hunt them.”
Along with the push to list the sage grouse as an endangered species, government and environmental agencies also propose the closure of various two-track roads within the state.
“This administration has been very unfriendly to resource users, exceedingly unfriendly,” Burkhardt said. “The national team on sage grouse published their recommendations on sage grouse and, for hell’s sakes, one of their recommendation, well, there was several in there: close twotrack roads, take down range fences, eliminate livestock grazing and cancel permits at every opportunity. When you think about it, the No. 1 threat to sage grouse is cheat grass and wildfire so you take away grazing and you leave all that grass out there to burn.”
Environmentalist push The sage grouse did not make the cut for the Endangered Species list this time around, but that could change in the next couple years.
“At the very least, the BLM will go ahead and implement those restrictions that show up like in the Wyoming plan,” Burkhardt said. “Maybe the worst is when Fish & Wildlife Service reconsiders the listing, which the federal court ruling is forcing. Judge (Lynn) Winmill out of Boise made that ruling; when they do that in 2015, they may go ahead and list it anyway. Then they do a range-wide plan for the sage grouse that’ll be far more restrictive than what we’re faced with now. There’ll be a hell of a lot of pressure on Fish & Wildlife Service to list the bird — all coming from the environmentalists, many of which are from the government agencies, the biologists.”
Extreme environmentalists and our own government are the biggest enemies at hand, Burkhardt said.
“If we don’t get rid of this federal administration we got now, this country’s got far worse problems than the sage grouse,” he said.
Article as featured in the Pick & Shovel Gazette August/September edition