Jan. 12, 2014
 
Ruth Miller
North Dakota Greater Sage-Grouse EIS
Bureau of Land Management
5001 Southgate Dr.
Billings, MT 59101
blm_mt_nd_sage_grouse@blm.gov
 
RE: North Dakota Greater Sage-Grouse Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement
 
Dear Ms. Miller:
 
The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association (NDSA) submits the following comments on the North Dakota Greater Sage-Grouse Draft Resource Management Amendment (RMPA) and Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for which a Notice of Availability was published in the Sept. 27, 2013, Federal Register. The NDSA is an 85-year-old trade organization representing approximately 3,000 beef cattle producers in the state. Many of our members live in Bowman, Slope and Golden Valley Counties, the area in discussion, and will be directly affected by the proposed land-use decisions within the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat. This area is a significant beef-producing area, and limits on livestock grazing would have significant economic ramifications for cattle-ranching landowners and our entire state.
 
The NDSA is an affiliate of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the Public Lands Council (PLC). NCBA and PLC will be submitting comments on several of the RMPAs/EISs that have been released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), including the North Dakota plan. The NDSA supports the comments of NCBA and PLC, and asks for the careful consideration of them in addition to those of ours.
 
The NDSA understands the necessity of the BLM to respond to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) “warranted, but precluded” listing determination in April 2010 and shares the BLM’s goal of avoiding a future Endangered Species Act listing of the sage-grouse. We also recognize that Alternative D is a much more reasonable option than Alternatives B and C. Still, our organization is concerned about the process that has led to the development of the alternatives under consideration, as well as some of the assumptions, conclusions and RMP amendments proposed in the BLM’s preferred Alternative D.  Moreover, we believe that the BLM did not adequately analyze or evaluate the effectiveness of existing regulations, standards and practices related to livestock grazing and range management or recognize the positive influence they have on sage-grouse habitat and, ultimately, the sage-grouse population.
 
In the RMPA/EIS (RMPA/EIS, 1-3), the BLM stated, “Inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms was identified as a significant threat in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding on the petition to list the Greater Sage-Grouse.” This is inaccurate as applied to livestock grazing and range management. In its 2010 listing decision, the USFWS stated that it lacked “the information necessary to assess how [the implementation of rangeland health assessments] affects sage-grouse conservation,” and, more specifically, existing “RMPs, AMPs and the permit renewal process provide an adequate regulatory framework.” Therefore, it is inappropriate for the BLM to develop alternatives designed to change current regulations without first understanding and quantifying the effectiveness of the current framework.
 
Credit should be given to the significant efforts that have been undertaken in southwestern North Dakota to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse by agencies such as the North Dakota Game & Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency and Bowman/Slope Soil Conservation District. In 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded 18 Sage-Grouse Initiative contracts in North Dakota encompassing 23,919 acres. In 2011, the agency awarded 11 such contracts encompassing 24,540 acres. A local working group called Grazing Ranchers about Sustainable Stewardship (GRASS) has also been formed to help ranchers and other landowners with Greater Sage-Grouse habitat issues and facilitate agency work with landowners.
 
The NDSA asserts that the BLM should have analyzed such efforts before developing alternatives and formulating RMP amendments with respect to livestock grazing and range management. Before proceeding further, the BLM should conduct that analysis.
 
We assert that existing standards and guidelines take an appropriate, diverse, multi-species approach to plant and wildlife management. It is inappropriate for the BLM to employ amendments that focus narrowly on the Greater Sage-Grouse and disregard other species. In North Dakota, plowing up native range may be the biggest threat to the Greater Sage-Grouse. The best kind of certainty for the Greater Sage-Grouse is to keep lands in grazing, and the BLM’s guidelines should account for that and the benefits of multiple land-use concepts on Greater Sage-Grouse populations. The BLM’s proposed amendments to the RMP threaten to shift the primary use of lands within grazing districts from livestock grazing to sage-grouse preservation, which would be in violation of the Taylor Grazing Act and the Federal Land Management Policy Act.
 
The USFWS established that habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and urbanization are among the most significant factors affecting sage-grouse. Therefore, it is critical that the BLM consider the potential negative consequences of changing standards and guidelines related to livestock grazing and range management in a way that would reduce grazing levels and/or forage production and availability. The Greater Sage-Grouse relies on grasslands for habitat. Thus, it behooves the BLM to carefully consider its actions as to not contribute to a greater threat to the animal.
 
Similarly, reducing livestock numbers and forage productivity would negatively impact the economic viability and sustainability of North Dakota cattle ranches. If the ranching operations cannot succeed, they would likely be poised for farmland conversion or urbanization – primary threats to the Greater Sage-Grouse.
 
The BLM (RMPA/EIS, 2-18 and 19) acknowledged that completely eliminating grazing on BLM land “may accelerate agricultural conversion of native range and Greater Sage-Grouse habitat on adjacent private lands.” It failed to acknowledge that habitat loss and urbanization would likely also occur, although not as dramatically, with Alternatives B and D due to limitations on range treatments and water and structural developments. Limiting grazing could also have the consequence of increased fuel load, exacerbating the chances and severity of wildfire, which has detrimental effects on the Greater Sage-Grouse.
 
The NDSA is also concerned about the proposed RMP amendment to permanently retire grazing permits. This too would be a violation of the Taylor Grazing Act.
 
The NDSA has several questions about the proposals.
 
• The DEIS indicates that the plan amendment addresses Greater Sage-Grouse habitat within the BLM North Dakota Field Office. The rationale for designating only preliminary habitat is unclear, since both priority and general habitat have already been mapped. How and when will the habitat designations be finalized? We urge the BLM to explain how and what data it will use to finalize Preliminary Priority Habitat and Preliminary General Habitat data.
 
• On Page 3-8, the BLM indicates that the minimum male count for this population in North Dakota was reported at 587, and the study estimated that the population would dip below 200 males in the next 100 years. Population counts in 2010 for North and South Dakota were approximately 300 males. As shown, the population estimates for sage-grouse in North Dakota are inconsistent throughout the documents, with a huge disparity between the Garton et al study and the study done in 2012. How many males were in North Dakota in 2012, and what was the source for the population estimate? What is the cause of the reduction? Can it be correlated with weather, human development, West Nile Virus, predation or another factor? It seems that most of the management prescriptions may have already been followed for more than 30 years and yet the population has been declining. The NDSA suggests that a clear statement of why the population’s levels have declined in North Dakota is needed. This will help determine whether or not the proposed RMPA concepts would even be effective. According to the North Dakota Game & Fish Department Management Draft Plan and Conservation Strategies for Greater Sage-Grouse, the recent decline in North Dakota appears to be a result of West Nile Virus in 2007. Perhaps a persistent low level of West Nile mortality is a factor that is holding back the Greater Sage-Grouse, which has a low natural survival rate as chicks. More attention should maybe then be directed at West Nile management strategies.
 
 Weather patterns are known to impact sage-grouse populations. The identified area in southwestern North Dakota is characterized by its unpredictability.  It experiences blizzards, floods, droughts, tornadoes, hail storms, thunderstorms, high winds, severe cold spells and extreme heat – often all in the same year. This extreme weather may be affecting the Greater Sage-Grouse population, and it is not accounted for in the materials. In addition, some of this area was subject to a major wild fire in the listed years. This too does not appear to be accounted for in the BLM materials.
 
• On Pages 3-8 and 9, the BLM indicates that the Dakotas’ population occurs on the far eastern side of the Greater Sage-Grouse range and is considered small and at high risk. Has the population ever been large and not at risk, and how does the current population compare to historic estimates? It would seem that, because North Dakota is on the edge of the range with little suitable habitat, the state may have never had the capacity to support large numbers of the Greater Sage-Grouse. Furthermore, because data suggests that the birds in North Dakota and Montana belong to the same population, analyses of population and trends should encompass the birds on both sides of the border, as the border does not appear to be relevant to sage-grouse ecology or habitat and analyzing one without the other seems to be arbitrary.
 
As stated on Page 3-50, “structural improvements may present a risk to Greater Sage-Grouse, particularly fences,” even though, on Page 4-103, it states “range improvements lead to better livestock distribution and management, which would maintain or improve rangeland health and could benefit the forage base.” This is conflicting information and needs to be reconciled. The NDSA supports the use of fences and urges the BLM to support their use. 
 
Page 4-102 states that livestock grazing “is a ‘diffuse’ form of biotic disturbance that exerts repeated pressure over many years on a system.” This language should be changed to say that grazing is beneficial to rangeland health. Davies et al. (2011) found that “appropriately managed grazing is critical to protecting the sagebrush ecosystem” and that “livestock grazing per se is not a stressor threatening the sustainability of the ecosystem. Thus, cessation of livestock grazing will not conserve the sagebrush ecosystem.” The western ecosystem evolved with large-herbivore grazing, and losing public lands grazing would severely damage ecological balance (Burkhardt, 1995). Improving range science and management practices are bettering the condition of the range (CAST, 1996). Ranching on both public and private land “has been found to support biodiversity that is of conservation concern” (Knight, 2007). Areas with flourishing and diverse plant and wildlife populations are often found in their present state because of, and not despite, the practice of grazing (NRCS, 2004). Grazing improves greater sage-grouse habitat by increasing the quality and accessibility of forbs for sage-grouse (Neel 1980, Derner et al. 1994, Evans 1986).
 
Travel management: NDSA disagrees with the blanket proposal to close roads and limit the development of new roads. In some instances, this would reduce conflicts with livestock grazing; however, many of the existing roads are used by ranchers, and new roads may be needed to better manage livestock in the future. The DEIS should state that roads will only be closed, or new roads limited, after consultation with livestock permittees.
 
Page 4-116 states that “standards would be developed with the state and local objectives would be developed at the field office in partnership with North Dakota Game & Fish Department and USFWS.” There appears to be a misprint in this sentence; we assume that standards would be developed by amending state and local objectives at the field office level by BLM staff working with North Dakota Game & Fish Department and USFWS. We question USFWS’ involvement in this process, as the sage-grouse is not a listed species and USFWS has no authority over BLM land-use decisions. Also, permittees and local governments should be involved in the development of new standards, should there be a need for such standards. We do agree with the DEIS’ call for a “location-appropriate framework,” as opposed to broad, one-size-fits-all enforcement of new standards. However, we question what this process will look like. There seem to be many important decisions regarding objectives and management left out of the DEIS.
 
Page 2-53 states that “Impacts from grazing management would be similar to Alternative B; however, Greater Sage-Grouse habitat requirements developed for North Dakota would be implemented.” Who would develop these requirements, and what would the process be? If indeed grazing management will be similar to that proposed by Alternative B, the NDSA cannot support this proposed action. Alternative B uses standards developed in the National Technical Team report that were not supported by the best available science and did not get proper public vetting. If meeting the “seasonal Greater Sage-Grouse requirements” equates to using the Habitat Assessment Framework of Connelly et al. 2000, then the stubble-height requirements will likely be difficult, if not impossible, for many allotments to achieve. Grazing will be impacted severely. Furthermore, the limitations on vegetation treatments and structural improvements with a myopic approach of “only what benefits sage-grouse” may have the unintended effect of putting livestock operations out of business – thereby increasing wildfire risk, decreasing plant and root systems health, and encouraging development on associated private lands.
 
Thank you for this opportunity to comment.
 
Sincerely,
 
 
 
 
Jason Zahn,
President

 

North Dakota Stockmen's Association * 407 S. 2nd St. * Bismarck, ND 58504 * 701-223-2522 * ndsa@ndstockmen.org