Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) are found in 11 western states, including Idaho. First described by Lewis and Clark in 1804, sage-grouse are considered sagebrush obligates, meaning they depend on sagebrush for food and protection from predators. The bird is considered to be an “umbrella” species of the sage-steppe ecosystem. The sage-steppe ecosystem is also essential for more than 350 other sagebrush obligate species, including mule deer, elk, prong horn, and pygmy rabbits.
In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated the greater sage-grouse as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Concerns about long-term declines in sage-grouse populations and habitat prompted unprecedented large-scale efforts in Idaho and other western states to conserve the species while continuing predicable levels of land-use activities. In September 2015, the FWS determined that ongoing conservation efforts had significantly reduced threats to the point where sage-grouse was no longer warranted for protection under the ESA. Collaborative efforts from state and federal agencies, private landowners, and conservation groups are credited for the decision to not list the species.
As part of the west-wide planning effort, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S Forest Service (USFS) started a planning process to address the needs of the sage-grouse on federal lands through a range-wide land-use plan amendment process.
In March 2012, Governor Otter issued Executive Order 2012-02 establishing the Governor’s Sage-Grouse Task Force. This diverse group of stakeholders which included representatives from industry, sportsmen, conservation groups, and elected officials was charged with developing a state-wide conservation plan to preclude the need to list the species under the ESA. The group met eight times between March and May with each meeting open to the public. The Task Force delivered its recommendations to the Governor in June 2012, which were then rolled into an “Alternative” for incorporation into the federal land-use plan amendment process.
The Governor’s Alternative, which was published in September 2012, adopted the designation of a Sage-Grouse Management Area with three distinct management zones: Core Habitat (CHZ), Important Habitat (IHZ), and General Habitat (GHZ). This allows managers to provide a high level of protection to the best habitat, or the CHZ, and provide the most flexibility in the GHZ. The Governor’s Alternative builds on the 2006 Conservation Plan for the Greater Sage-Grouse in Idaho and focuses on the most urgent threats to the bird’s habitat, which is fragmentation due to fire and invasive species. The full version of the alternative can be read here (Federal Alternative of Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter for Greater Sage-Grouse Management in Idaho).
The Governor’s Alternative received support from many federal agencies. The plan was selected as a co-preferred alternative by the BLM and USFS in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process for amending 88 Resource Management Plans in sage-grouse habitat. The Record of Decision and final plan for sage-grouse conservation on federal lands, which includes portions of the Governor’s Alternative, was released in September 2015. The final EIS can be read here (Idaho and Southwestern Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Final Environmental Impact Statement).
While the not-warranted determination for sage-grouse is the desired outcome for the state, in late 2014 federal agencies in Washington D.C. deviated from Idaho’s local, scientifically-based collaborative agreement and unilaterally adopted additional and unnecessary restrictions for land use activities in key sage-grouse habitat. After exhausting all administrative options, former Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and the Idaho State Legislature filed a lawsuit over the BLM and USFS’s last minute adoption of overly restrictive land use plan amendments. The 2015 amendments violated the federal agencies’ mandate to manage public land for multiple-uses, which include recreation, resource development, fish and wildlife, and livestock grazing. This was done without proper analysis and vetting by the states or the public. The Governor contended the flawed amendment process by the BLM and USFS undermined years of open partnership-driven work by local and state leaders and other stakeholders. For more information about the lawsuit, read Governor Otter’s press release here: (Press release: Governor Otter, Legislature Sue Feds over Flawed Process behind Sage-Grouse).
The Governor’s Alternative became the “Idaho Plan” when it was signed into law by Executive Order 2015-04 providing an innovative strategy for dealing with the primary threats to the species in Idaho (wildfire, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, etc.) while maintaining predictable levels of land use.
In June 2017, Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, authorized Secretarial Order 3353 to enhance cooperation and support partnerships between the Department of the Interior and state entities in 11 western states for sage-grouse management and conservation on federal lands. The Department of the Interior and BLM worked collaboratively with western governors to amend the 2015 Sage-Grouse Amendments to better align with existing state plans and policy. The foundational elements of the Idaho Plan were used to craft the 2018 Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement through the dedication and collaboration between the State of Idaho, including OSC and key stakeholders. This plan was aimed to meet the needs of the greater sage-grouse while respecting Idaho’s economic vitality and its people’s way of life. This later resulted in the development 2019 Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Plan Amendments and Environmental Impact Statements (ARMPA). OSC continues to work with its local, state and federal partners on a collaborative planning effort in the proper management of sage-grouse.
To complement the Governor’s Alternative for federal lands, the state completed a plan in April 2015 and updated it in October 2017 aimed at sage-grouse conservation on state endowment lands. This plan further demonstrates Idaho’s commitment to sage-grouse conservation and ensuring compliance with the State’s constitutional mandate to maximize revenue generation. For more information and to view the plan, see the following link:(Final IDL Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan).
Governor Otter signed Executive Order 2015-04 on May 27, 2015, reinforcing Idaho’s greater sage-grouse conservation planning efforts. The executive order unites efforts to protect sage-grouse and its habitat across all land-ownerships to avoid a listing under the federal ESA, balanced with multiple use activities on public land.
In May 2015, the state agencies charged with implementing the Governor’s Strategy – OSC, IDL, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) – established the Sage Grouse Actions Team, along with local federal agency partners including the USFWS, BLM, and the NRCS. The Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Idaho Department of Agriculture and the USFS have also joined the group.
The team works collaboratively to prioritize and fund actions in accordance with the Governor’s Strategy. Priorities for funding include helping equip RFPAs to improve fire suppression capabilities, build strategic fuel breaks to slow the spread of wildfire, restore areas that have been degraded by wildfire from encroached juniper trees and annual grasses, restore and improve brood rearing habitat, and enhance the monitoring of sage grouse activity.
Learn more about the Sage-Grouse Actions Team: Sage-Grouse Actions Team, Implementing the Governor’s Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy.
In August 2015, the Soda Fire affected a large area of sagebrush steppe habitat in southwestern Idaho which included some Priority and Important habitat for sage-grouse. The Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation (OSC) is dedicated to coordinating with federal, state, and local governments as well as private interests to implement conservation actions outlined within Governor Otter’s Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan. One of the main objectives of the plan is to implement actions aimed at ameliorating the primary threats to sage-grouse in Idaho; habitat fragmentation due to wildfires and invasive species.
In the aftermath of the Soda Fire, OSC staff began working alongside the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Department of Lands, BLM, FWS, and private land owners to help prioritize and coordinate sage-grouse habitat restoration actions for state and private lands. Our collective goal with our partners is to ensure that habitat rehabilitation efforts and treatments are implemented seamlessly across the landscape to provide for a more consistent outcome. OSC has limited funding available for habitat rehabilitation efforts on state and private lands. OSC’s focus is to ensure that our rangelands remain healthy and viable for wildlife and predictable levels of land use activities.
To learn more about the Soda Fire rehabilitation efforts visit: Soda Fire Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation – Bureau of Land Management