A proposed fuel break system in southwest Idaho, southeast Oregon and northern Nevada will limit the size of destructive rangeland wildfires and protect habitat for sage grouse, say officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The agency on Tuesday released a plan called the Tri-State Fuel Break Project, which would create gaps in combustible vegetation along existing roads on public lands in the three states by reducing fuel next to the roads, using either machines or chemical treatments, and maintained with a long-term schedule.
Fuel breaks would be developed on about 5,600 square miles in Idaho and Oregon that could be tied in with fuel breaks in Nevada. The agency said it has identified about 1,600 miles of roads that could be part of the fuel break system.
The agency is preparing an environmental impact statement, and is taking public comments on the plan through Feb. 3
The area contains one of the largest intact strongholds for greater sage grouse in the northern Great Basin, officials said, but faces wildfire threats from invasive annual grasses, notably fire-prone cheatgrass.
Officials say the region is prone to summer lightning storms that cause simultaneous wildfires that can use up limited wildfire fighting resources, increasing the chances that some wildfires will get out of control. Such a wildfire in 2015 scorched about 436 square miles of sagebrush steppe in Idaho and Oregon that supports cattle grazing and some 350 species of wildlife, including sage grouse. The burned area is now the focus of a 5-year, $67 million rehabilitation effort.
"The mega-fires, it's the new normal," said Larry Moore, a BLM spokesman for Oregon's Vale District. "Longer fire season, extended drought in many of the most vulnerable areas. We're very much hoping to mitigate the size and severity of these fires."
Ken Cole of Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project said the environmental group hadn't had time to fully go over the plan but had some initial concerns. Among them is that the fuel breaks would be planted with forage grasses for cattle instead of native plants, that improvements to roads would increase the number of human visitors and result in more wildfires, and that the federal agency would have to use herbicide to maintain the fuel breaks.
"They're going to have a lot of problems to deal with once they start down this road," he said.
Sage grouse are ground-dwelling, chicken-sized birds found in 11 Western states, where between 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million. They depend on sagebrush for food year-round, and hens nest underneath the plants. Tall native grasses help screen the hens and their eggs and chicks from predators.
The federal government has been working to protect that habitat to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing for the greater sage grouse, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a secretarial order in early 2015 calling for a "science-based" approach to safeguard the bird.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the bird last year, noting ongoing conservation efforts, but will review the bird's status within five years.
John Freemuth, a public lands policy expert and Boise State University professor, said there's an urgency to the fuel break plan with a new administration coming in under President-elect Donald Trump that might not be as concerned about a potential sage grouse listing.
"The concern is that so much stuff gets burned up we have a listing and that changes the politics and relationships people have here in the West," Freemuth said.