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A Plan of Firsts: Lander Resource Management Plan Tackles Big Picture

The clock is ticking about whether to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species.  Such a listing could all but shut down mineral development in the bird’s habitat.  The state has already tackled sage grouse protections.  Now it’s the federal government’s turn.  It’s been 30 years since the Lander Resource Management Plan was revised.  And so the Bureau of Land Management took the opportunity to put more protections in place for the grouse while they were at it. 

The Lander Resource Management Plan is hundreds of pages and covers a lot of ground. 

“…Wilderness, wild horses, wildlife including sage grouse, lands and realty, recreation, cultural resources, minerals,” Lander field manager, Rick VanderVoet says. “All the things that B-L-M does across the landscape.”

In other words, it’s not exactly light reading.  But in fact buried in all those pages are some groundbreaking approaches to managing landscapes on the large scale.  As Kristin Yannone, the Lander planner for the BLM says, “It’s been called a plan of first.  It’s first in a lot of things.” 

For instance, it’s the first of 15 plans scheduled to be released covering the eleven states located in sage grouse country.  Four of those plans are in Wyoming, home to one-third of the world’s remaining sage grouse population.  Another first for the Lander management plan is its adoption of the so-called Core Area Strategy.  That’s the state of Wyoming’s all-purpose policy tool for designating important sage grouse habitat. And the federal government’s decision to use that strategy is what’s causing the most disagreement about the management plan.  

"And that includes all of our big predators, our neat species: lynx and possibly wolverines. And so that decision to keep those areas well protected from industrial development has amazing impacts for the other wildlife species beyond the sage grouse."

“There is decades of research available on the grouse and its habitat,” says Director Mark Salvo with Defenders of Wildlife, the author of a new report called “The Core Problem.”  “We know a lot about this bird.  The less disturbance that occurs in breeding, nesting and brooding habitat, the more sage grouse you’re likely to have.”

Salvo doesn’t think the Core Area Strategy does enough to minimize the disturbance.  He says it ignores the BLM’s own science because it only protects the birds seasonally, not year round. And it only gives sage grouse leks—the breeding sites where the males perform their famous dance--a buffer zone of .6 of a mile.  He points out that a scientific review team for the federal government—the National Technical Team--recommended of a four mile buffer. 

“The National Technical Team report was guidance to be used in land use planning, not a prescription of hard and fast rules that must be applied in every situation,” says Lander field manager, Rick VanderVoet.

The Governor’s Natural Resources Policy Advisor Jeremiah Reiman agrees.  He says the buffer zone rule has to be flexible to balance the needs of multiple land users.

“I think that the criticism is comparing apples to donuts here.” 

He says you can’t compare the four miles recommended by science to the .6 of a mile.  That’s because the four miles is recommended for males and females during their breeding and nesting period.  The Core Strategy actually gives them 5.3 miles during that time.  Reiman says the .6 of a mile applies only for male birds.   But, again, the 5.3 mile protection is only enforced seasonally during nesting season. 

And so the argument goes round and round.

But whatever the details might be, there’s the issue of whether the Core Area Strategy will even work.  Ed Arnett is the director of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a sportsmen’s group. He says studies show the Core Area Strategy won’t increase the populations; it will only keep them from decreasing. He says the federal government needs to aim higher. 

“I think that people tend to forget that the Core Strategy is not necessarily a panacea to save the sage grouse and develop long term increases in populations.  There’s still projected losses even with the Core Strategy in place.”

But Julia Stuble with Wyoming Outdoor Council says the job of the Management Plan isn’t to focus exclusively on sage grouse.  She says it’s does a good job of balancing protections for lots of wildlife species.

“And that includes all of our big predators, our neat species—lynx and possibly wolverines.  And so that decision to keep those areas well protected from industrial development has amazing impacts for the other wildlife species beyond the sage grouse.”

And she says there are protections beyond those for sage grouse that will also protect the bird.

“The national historic trails corridor is off-limits to oil and gas surface use, but that crosses sage grouse core area,” she says.  “So it’s not done in the name of sage grouse, but there are overlapping protections that strengthen the overall impact of the plan.  And that’s what Outdoor Council sees as being really strong about this plan.  But it shouldn’t be a template or model used in other places.

Right now that’s the BLM’s intentions for the rest of the management plans.  But Stuble says using Lander as a cookie cutter would be a mistake since every landscape is unique.  She says each one deserves its own tailored plan.  

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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