BLM and Sage Grouse

BLM added pointless sage grouse "conservation" restrictions to the Virtue Flat Shooting Range lease.
The restrictions are pointless because they don't achieve any conservation objective.

The Club was required to sign the lease in order to continue operating.
We are appealing the decision to IBLA. The appeal is still under review.

The new restrictions:
1 - No shooting or maintenance work from two hours before sunset until two hours after sunrise from March through June, if occupied leks are located within four miles of the range. An occupied lek is any lek that sage grouse have used in the last seven years. If ODFW or BLM fail to monitor a lek within the seven year window, the clock resets back to zero, which means that this restriction can be indefinite.

2 - No shooting from two hours before sunset until two hours after sunrise from March through June if noise from the range can be measured at 10dB or higher above ambient sound level at the perimeter of any lek, regardless of how far the lek is from the shooting range.

The shooting range is on Hwy 86, between the BLM Interpretive Center and the BLM OHV Area.
BLM is not enforcing morning and evening closures at the BLM OHV Area. Only at the Shooting Range.
The image below shows the 280,000 acre Baker Priority Area for Conservation (PAC) in purple,
and the 170,000 acre Baker Low Density Habitat in light blue.

Combined, the shaded areas represent 450,000 acres of sage grouse habitat near Baker City, most of it undeveloped.
In a perfect world, the shaded areas would be full of sage grouse. They aren't.
About 80% of the sage grouse in this area died after the arrival of West Nile Virus in 2006.
The surviving birds congregated mostly in the center region of the PAC.

The goal of the current conservation initiative is to "restore" every possible inch of habitat within the shaded areas, to give the sage grouse the best chance of recovery if they can overcome wildfire, West Nile Virus, ravens, and whatever else is killing them.

Sage grouse are neat birds. Sage Grouse Conservation is a worthwhile objective, and a good idea.
But it is also the kind of idea that extremists tend to carry to extremes.
Extremists are rarely interested in balancing multiple uses of public land. What they really want is control, and keeping you off your public land.

The white areas on the image represent the footprints of the 1992 BLM Interpretive Center, the 1968 Virtue Flat Shooting Range, the 1974 BLM OHV Area, and the town of Keating (from west to east).
The traffic count on Hwy 86 at the Keating cutoff is 900 vehicles per day.
The Interpretive Center sees 40,000 visitors per year.
The OHV is a very popular destination for off-roaders, hikers, bicyclists, bird watchers, etc.

If you draw a generous buffer line around the three recreational facilities (red line on map), it will encompass about 15,000 acres.
We call this zone the Hwy 86 Recreational Zone.
Sage grouse stopped using habitat near the Rec Zone in about 2018.
Sage grouse are creatures of habit. They like to use the same breeding and nesting grounds year after year. It takes a lot of human activity and disturbance to break their habits, but once you do, it is unlikely that sage grouse will return to disturbed areas. Possible, but unlikely.
Most of the sage grouse in the Baker PAC died after 2006, and the survivors congregated east of the Rec Zone.
That is an important point. The reason sage grouse stopped using land near the Rec Zone was not human disturbance and activity. They stopped using it because most of the birds died and the survivors congregated elsewhere.

If sage grouse recover in the Baker PAC, they will spread out and occupy more habitat, but it is unlikely that they will resume productive use of land near the Rec Zone, because sage grouse avoid highways and human developments and activity (scroll down to see references).
This is okay.
There is plenty of room for plenty of birds to find plenty of habitat in the 450,000-acre Baker PAC.
The 15,000-acre Rec Zone is not essential to sage grouse recovery or survival.
We can all work to eliminate noxious weeds and predator subsidies in the Rec Zone, which will help improve neighboring habitat, but it is not necessary to close the recreational facilities or the highway in order to save the sage grouse.

The next image is a closer view of the Rec Zone.

The orange circle is a 2000-yard circle around a lek that sage grouse used for decades before they suddenly stopped using it in 2018.
This lek is about 1.5 miles from the shooting range, 1 mile from the highway, and a half mile from the OHV parking lot.
The birds used this lek every year for 20 or 30 years, maybe longer.
The combined noise and activity of the shooting range, highway, and OHV did not overcome the birds' fidelity to that lek location.
They kept using it every year.
That is an important point.
If the Rec Zone highway and activity did not drive them away for 30 years, it is not necessary to restrict activity in the Rec Zone in order to save sage grouse in the Baker PAC.

Male sage grouse arrive at their leks in March and they stay within 1000 yards of that lek until mid-May.
Females arrive at leks in April or May and stay within 1000 yards for a few days until they are bred, then they depart for their preferred nesting grounds.
Sage grouse did this every year for 30 years at the lek shown in the image above.
Now, BLM says we have to stop shooting in the morning and evening from March through June to help sage grouse.
That doesn't make any sense.
If sage grouse never get farther than 1000 yards from their lek during breeding season, any noise or activity that disturbs them in the morning and evening will also disturb them during the day.
Morning and evening quiet times are pointless.
Being loud all day but quiet in the mornings and evenings has never been an intelligent nor effective strategy for enticing human-wary wildlife to reume use of human-disturbed habitat, anywhere.

Thanks for reading.
The new restrictions on our lease are pointless.
They are an example of mindless policy enforced by extremists who care more about controlling people and restricting freedom than anything else.
This is a common problem in America today.
Compliance with irrational public policy is the thing that is tearing this country apart.
We all need to spend a little more time standing together to oppose irrational public policy.

If you want to help PRSC push back against BLM and help improve American governance, go sign the petition at www.fixblm.org.

David Spaugh
Powder River Sportsmen's Club

Sage grouse avoid highways. References below.

1 - Connelly et al evaluated 804 leks within 100 km of I-80 in Wyoming and Utah. No leks were located within 2 km of either side of the highway. Only nine leks were located within 4 km. Distance from the highway was a significant predictor of lek activity: activity declined faster at leks within 7.5km compared to leks located between 7.5 and 15km from I-80.
Connelly JW, Knick ST, Schroeder MA, Stiver SJ and Wildlife Agencies. “Conservation assessment of greater sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats.” (2004).

2 - Knick et al evaluated 3,184 lek locations across 920,000 km2 to model minimum habitat characteristics essential to sage grouse persistence. Sage grouse abandon leks when the density of highways located within 5km exceeds 50 meters per km2, or when the density of interstate highways located within 5km exceeds 10 meters per km2.
Knick ST, Hanser SE, Preston KL. “Modeling ecological minimum requirements for distribution of greater sage-grouse leks: implications for population connectivity across their western range, U.S.A.” Ecology and Evolution 3 (2013): 1539 - 1551. 
3 - Wann et al, in collaboration with BLM, evaluated 6,615 lek locations across the entire U.S. sage grouse range to model habitat characteristics most conducive to lek persistence. Some environmental factors influenced lek persistence in consistent ways across the entire range of habitat, whereas other environmental factors exhibited regional variation in degree of influence. For example, encroaching pinyon/juniper may serve as sage grouse roosts in some areas, whereas the presence of >16 meters per km2 of major road surface within 3.2km of habitat predicts lek extirpation everywhere within sage grouse range. Major roads are negatively associated with lek persistence regardless of adjacent landscape conditions. Distance matters: nearby disturbances impact bird behavior more than distant disturbances.
Wann GT, Van Schmidt ND, Shyvers JE, Tarbox BC, McLachlan MM, O’Donnell MS, Titolo AJ, Coates PS, Edmunds DR, Heinrichs JA, Monroe AP, Aldridge CL. A regionally varying habitat model to inform management for greater sage-grouse persistence across their range. Global Ecology and Conservation. 2023; 41.
4 - Holloran: male lek attendance was significantly diminished by the presence of oilfield main haul roads within 3 km of leks. Attendance rates were negatively associated with traffic volume and also road length greater than 5 km.
Holloran MJ. “Greater sage-grouse (centrocercus urophasianus) population response to natural gas field development in western Wyoming.” (2005).
5 - Aldridge et al observed that female Gunnison grouse avoid nesting in proximity to BLM Class 1 and Class 2 roads. At the patch scale, threshold response curves indicated very low probability of nest occurrence within 8 km of major roads, and sharply higher probability at distances greater than 8 km from major roads.
Aldridge C, Saher D, Childers T, Stahlnecker K, Bowen Z. "Crucial nesting habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse: A spatially explicit hierarchical approach." J of Wildlife Management. 2012; 76:391-406.
6 - Tack demonstrated that proximity to roads is negatively associated with lek occurrence. The impact of roads within 3.2km is detrimental for all leks, but comparatively more pronounced for large leks with 25 or more birds.
Tack, JD. "Sage-grouse and the human footprint: implications for conservation of small and declining populations." (2009). University of Montana Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers #856. 
7 - Berkeley et al: At the landscape scale, distance to nearest road is a primary variable affecting sage grouse selection of nest sites. Hens select nest sites farther away from county roads and highways compared to two-track roads, and avoid landscapes that have a higher density of gravel or paved roads.
Berkeley L, Szczypinski M, Helm J, Dreitz V. "Sage Grouse Grazing Project - Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Progress Report." Montana Fish, Wildlife, 7 Parks W-158-R.  https://fwp.mt.gov/binaries/content/assets/fwp/conservation/wildlife-reports/sage-grouse/2019aug_sagegrouse_progress_report_final1.pdf
8 - Lyon et al: Light traffic disturbance of 1-12 vehicles per day during the breeding season may reduce sage grouse nest-initiation rates and increase distances moved from leks during nest site selection.
Lyon AG, Anderson SH. "Potential Gas Development Impacts on Sage Grouse Nest Initiation and Movement.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 2003;31(2):486–91.  
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