- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A conservation organization is requesting the U.S. Bureau of Land Management conduct environmental reviews before renewing 453 grazing permits that contain areas designated as important sage grouse habitat.

Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project in a letter sent last week to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the grazing permits expire in March.

The letter followed a ruling in U.S. District Court in Boise last month that found the BLM improperly used a congressional grazing rider to renew grazing permits in Idaho without necessary environmental reviews.

“It’s time for the BLM to take sage grouse conservation seriously,” said Todd Tucci, an attorney at Advocates for the West who represented Western Watersheds Project in the federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit only pertains to Idaho, but Tucci has said he could win similar federal court battles in other states. The letter cites grazing permits in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, California, Colorado and Utah.

Interior Department spokeswoman Emily Beyer in an email to The Associated Press said the agency couldn’t comment on litigation. A BLM spokeswoman in Boise said the Interior Department is handling all inquiries about the Western Watersheds Project letter.

The letter notes that the BLM’s Rangeland Administration System database lists the permits as within what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified as Sage-grouse Priority Areas for Conservation.

Fish and Wildlife is expected to make a decision by September 2015 on whether sage grouse should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The agency previously deferred listing the species.

“If they see that trend (in population) continuing to decline from when they deferred last time, it will be hard for them not to list,” said John Freemuth, a public land policy expert and professor at Boise State University. “But if the population is stable and conservation efforts have been ratcheted up, then they might be able to reason they don’t need the listing.”

Tucci said decisions federal agencies take concerning the 453 permits will likely play a role in Fish and Wildlife’s decision. About 60 percent of sage grouse habitat, he noted, is on BLM administered land.

“This is going to be setting the stage for the sage grouse ruling,” Tucci said. “These are decisions that will result in on-the-ground impacts for sage grouse.”

Jewell toured sage grouse habitat earlier this month in south-central Idaho to get information about conservation efforts as federal, state and private entities work to avoid a listing that could limit energy development and agriculture and damage the economies of Western states.

Jewell said the problems confronting sage grouse, while complex, aren’t insurmountable. Both of Idaho’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, traveled to the tiny town of Rogerson to meet Jewell at the start of the tour, an indication of the level of concern with a potential listing.

“We are committed to see that we develop a plan that makes the sage grouse population sustainable and saves the species,” Risch said at the start of the tour. “It is not just a cosmetic thing. This business of turning your back on an issue is something from last century.”

Sage grouse, known for gathering in spring in breeding grounds called leks, have declined in the last century with the loss of sagebrush habitat. Estimates on their numbers vary from 100,000 to 500,000.

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