How New Rangeland Wildfire Priorities Could Save Sage Grouse

May 20, 2015

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell met with Idaho state officials, fire managers and ranchers Tuesday about a new strategy to protect greater sage grouse habitat from wildfire. The 82-page plan is part of a larger effort among 11 western states trying to keep the threatened bird off the Endangered Species List. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to list the bird in September.

The plan includes things like removing fire-prone invasive species like cheatgrass, creating fuel breaks on land to stop the spread of fires, and rebuilding sage brush habitat. The federal plan prioritizes the bird’s habitat in the event of a rangeland wildfire.

"Fire is the number one threat to this ecosystem in the Great Basin states," says Jewell. "And as we see the effects of climate change, we see much greater risk to the sage brush ecosystem."

After a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) Jewell signed the Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy at the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center in Boise. The federal official talked about the ecosystem-wide approach and the state, federal and private land partnerships that are necessary to save the sage grouse. She says if the bird is saved, 350 other species will also be preserved.

Jewell says when she’s talked to fire managers about the plan, they’ve been receptive.

“They’ve actually said to me, ‘This is really helpful.' This is the first time that we have prioritized the sage brush landscape and the rangeland as a priority for the [Bureau of Land Management]. I think it’s going to be enormously helpful in providing them guidance.”

State leaders across the sage brush landscape – including Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter – don't want to see the animal listed because they're concerned about what special protections for the bird could do to local economies. The state created the Governor's Sage Grouse Task Force in 2012 to tackle the issue head-on, in the hopes that collaborative conservation efforts would preclude the need for a listing.

The sage grouse has seen significant loss of habitat and population as threats from things like oil and gas development have increased. In Idaho, the biggest threats to the struggling bird are invasive species and wildfire.

Jewell pointed to the 2007 Murphy Complex fire near Twin Falls as an example of a blaze that had negative effects on sage grouse habitat. That wildfire burned more than 600,000 acres in Idaho and Nevada, and Jewell says climate change has created larger and more unmanageable fires like this one.

The wildfire strategy centers on the fire-prone rangeland in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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