E&E News: Major Juniper Removal in Idaho to Save Sage Grouse

January 20, 2015

 

SGI note:
E&E News today published the article below. Tim Griffiths, SGI national coordinator for NRCS, is quoted:

“We have a fighting chance to actually solve this thing,” said Tim Griffiths, national coordinator for the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, which includes ranchers, federal and state agencies, universities, nonprofit groups, and businesses and is funded largely by the farm bill. “We really need to be focusing on these early-phase trees where there are still birds on the landscape.”

And more from Griffiths:
NRCS chipped in $1.8 million using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to livestock ranchers in Idaho, Griffiths said. Sage grouse have swiftly returned to areas that were once dotted by juniper, he said.

 
BLM embarks on major juniper removal in Idaho to save sage grouse

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter: @philipataylor
Published: Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Bureau of Land Management today announced plans to cut, chop and burn native juniper trees across 1.5 million acres of southwest Idaho in hopes of beating back a major threat to the greater sage grouse.

The project<http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-01-20/pdf/2015-00741.pdf>, whose cost was not disclosed, aims to attack juniper trees before they host sage grouse predators like hawks, ravens and crows, and before they overtake native bunch grasses and sagebrush that sage grouse need to survive.

Treatments would likely occur over several years and would focus on juniper trees within 6 miles of the roughly 70 occupied sage grouse breeding grounds, known as leks, in BLM’s Owyhee and Bruneau field offices, according to a BLM information package<https://www.blm.gov/epl-front-office/projects/nepa/42342/52326/57017/BOSH_FinalScopingDocument.pdf>on the project.

“A landscape level treatment is needed because loss of habitat to juniper encroachment is one of the major threats to sage-grouse in southwest Idaho,” BLM said. “While many acres have been treated across the west since 2004, treatments have not been at a landscape scale and are not likely keeping pace with the current rate of juniper encroachment.”

The project comes roughly a month after Congress passed a fiscal 2015 spending bill prohibiting the Fish and Wildlife Service from preparing a rule to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, a move that some feared would slow federal and state momentum to conserve the imperiled bird’s 165 million acres of habitat in 11 Western states.

But the bill also provided $15 million “to promote sustainable sage-grouse populations through conservation of sensitive habitat” and to avoid a listing. It was not immediately clear whether that funding could be used to implement the Owyhee-Bruneau project.

The charismatic ground-dwelling bird once numbered about 16 million but has declined to as few as 200,000 due to habitat threats including energy development, invasive species and wildfire.

BLM is taking public comments on the plan through mid-February and will be preparing an environmental impact statement.

The plan is one of BLM’s larger bids to control the spread of juniper, which, while a native species, is a key threat to sage grouse in the Great Basin states of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California. Other major threats include invasive species, namely cheatgrass, and wildfire. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier this month established a rangeland fire task force to combat those threats (Greenwire<http://www.eenews.net/greenwire/stories/1060011186>, Jan. 6).

Conifer trees including junipers and pinyon began to expand in the Great Basin roughly 150 years ago when humans began suppressing wildfires. Since then, they have expanded their range more than sixfold, covering 14 million acres. The shrublike trees suck up scarce desert water, drying up springs and streams; altering soil acidity; and shading plants important to grouse, mule deer, jack rabbits and golden eagles.

One study<http://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Baruch-Mordo.pdf> published in 2013 by scientists from the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service found that sage grouse in eastern Oregon disappeared from the landscape once conifer cover reached 4 percent.

Once juniper trees establish a woodland, they completely overtake native bunch grasses and sagebrush, eliminating native seed sources, NRCS has said.

BLM said that conversion “can alter community structure and ecosystem function to a point that returning to a sagebrush steppe community is highly improbable.”

The BLM project will remove early-stage western junipers that are yet to overtake the shrubs and herbs below them. While the project covers 1.5 million acres, the actual acres treated will be considerably smaller.

Most treatments would involve mulching the juniper trees on site or lopping and scattering them. Some would be burned to eliminate hazards near roads that pose a threat to the public and firefighters, BLM said. Handsaws may be used to cut trees in wilderness and wilderness study areas.

Others involved in the project include NRCS, Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, and the University of Idaho.

BLM’s EIS will also assess potential environmental harm including the spread of invasive and noxious plants, harm to raptor nests, removal of old-growth juniper, temporary disturbance of sage grouse, and harm to wilderness values.

Treating the juniper trees while they’re young will be far less costly than removing them after they’re fully grown and have transformed the sagebrush steppe habitat, BLM said.

Since conifer expansion slowed in the early 1900s, about 20 percent of the invasive woodlands have grown into an older forest, NRCS said. But within 30 to 50 years, about 75 percent of the trees will have grown into large trees overtaking the ecosystem, it said.

“We have a fighting chance to actually solve this thing,” said Tim Griffiths, national coordinator for the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, which includes ranchers, federal and state agencies, universities, nonprofit groups, and businesses and is funded largely by the farm bill. “We really need to be focusing on these early-phase trees where there are still birds on the landscape.”

A major bottleneck has been making sure BLM has performed National Environmental Policy Act reviews on a large enough scale, Griffiths said. “I would really tip NRCS’s and the Sage Grouse Initiative’s hats off to BLM,” he said.

The Owyhee-Bruneau project aims to mimic the success of BLM’s Burley Landscape Sage-Grouse Habitat Restoration Project in south-central Idaho, where the agency has partnered with NRCS, Idaho, Pheasants Forever and more than three dozen public lands ranchers to clear juniper from nearly 15,000 acres of the Jim Sage Mountain area south of Albion. An additional 14,000 acres is scheduled for treatment in the next three to five years.

“This project has enjoyed significant success in large part due to the innovative partnerships and sources of funding including the [BLM’s] healthy lands initiative,” Dustin Smith, a Burley district fire ecologist, said in a statement this month. “Our lean budgets and scarce resources have encouraged the formation of some great partnerships, allowing us to accomplish far more than we ever could have had we attempted this on our own.”

NRCS chipped in $1.8 million using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to livestock ranchers in Idaho, Griffiths said. Sage grouse have swiftly returned to areas that were once dotted by juniper, he said.

Through NRCS’s sage grouse efforts, ranchers in Oregon have cut 200,000 acres of early successional conifer since 2010, Griffiths said.

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.