Why Saving Sage Grouse Habitat During A Wildfire Could Be Difficult

May 21, 2015

Part of the sage brush ecosystem near Minidoka, Idaho. The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of fighting fires in most of the sage grouse habitat in the state.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

A new rangeland fire management plan is the result of cross-state and federal collaboration that isn't often seen in resource policy. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Idaho earlier this week to present the plan alongside state officials

But with the deadline looming for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision on whether or not to add the greater sage grouse to the Endangered Species List, the Interior Department had a good reason to make a new plan.

"I think it's commendable that they've been able to accomplish this this fast," says Boise State environmental policy professor John Freemuth. "Probably if there wasn't the threat of a listing this wouldn't have happened this fast."

The plan makes the sage brush ecosystem a priority in rangeland firefighting, in states across the Great Basin. According to Interior Secretary Jewell, this is the first time the Bureau of Land Management has had this kind of habitat directive.

Freemuth says both state and federal officials deserve credit for recognizing how much of a threat wildfire is to sage grouse habitat. But he says fire officials will have to adjust some traditional thinking to make sage grouse habitat a higher priority. 

"There may be internal fighting over the fire people being told where fires are more important and where to go, rather than them thinking they get to determine all of this."

He says how that directive will play out on the ground during a wildfire is the real policy test.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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