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US launches ambitious plan to battle rangeland wildfires

Wildfire consumes sagebrush Aug. 5, 2015, as firefighters let it march down to the Columbia River on the edge of Roosevelt, Wash. (Don Ryan / AP)
Wildfire consumes sagebrush Aug. 5, 2015, as firefighters let it march down to the Columbia River on the edge of Roosevelt, Wash. (Don Ryan / AP)

BOISE – Federal officials have launched a two-pronged plan to stop a vicious cycle of rangeland wildfires in a wide swath of sagebrush country in the West that supports cattle ranching, recreation and is home to an imperiled bird.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Friday said it will create an Environmental Impact Statement concerning fuel breaks and another on fuels reduction and restoration for Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah and Washington.

The agency said the documents when finished will help speed the process for future landscape-scale projects in the Great Basin by providing a blanket approval for similar areas that will likely just need minor additional environmental reviews to proceed.

“It saves teams from having to do the same kinds of analysis 10, 15, 20 times over the next 20 years,” BLM spokesman Ken Frederick said.

Giant rangeland wildfires in recent decades have destroyed vast areas of sagebrush steppe that support some 350 species of wildlife, including imperiled sage grouse. Experts say the wildfires have mainly been driven by cheatgrass, an invasive species that relies on fire to spread to new areas while killing the native plants, including sagebrush. Once cheatgrass takes over, the land is of little value.

“It’s not sustainable,” said Jonathan Beck, a project manager with the BLM working on the documents. “If we don’t take proactive measures to stop the fire cycle, we’re going to lose the sagebrush that we have out there right now.”

Details of the BLM plans have yet to be worked out. In general, the agency said projects in the plans “would reduce the threat of habitat loss from fires and restore habitat to maintain the rangeland’s productivity and support the western lifestyle.”

The agency is taking public comments through Feb. 20 as it sorts through uncertainties. For example, the agency notes that fuel breaks could become a barrier for small animals that would have no place to hide.

Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said fuel breaks are a paradox because it’s intentionally fragmenting the landscape to avoid the even worse fragmentation that occurs with wildfires.

“Fires, especially large fires, are so unambiguously damaging to wildlife habitat in general – that is the motivating factor for getting these fuel breaks out,” he said. “At this point, it’s really difficult to predict which animal species will benefit and which ones won’t. Sometimes you have to just act in light of the uncertainty.”

He said land managers adapting as they go with new information learned from the efforts will be important for success.

Success has been elusive for federal agencies trying to halt the advance of cheatgrass.

“We’re not winning,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert. “We’re holding it in check in some places. This is a long-term commitment. Decades, really.”

Millions of sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that relies on sagebrush, once roamed the West, but development, livestock grazing and wildfires have reduced the bird’s population to fewer than 500,000. Most of the bird’s habitat – sagebrush steppe – is on land administered by the BLM.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. But there’s concern that if wildfires destroy enough of the sagebrush steppe that remains, it could again be considered for listing.

“Some of those who want to gut the Endangered Species Act, they’re not always going to be in power,” said Freemuth. “So it’s in the long-term interest of everybody to make progress.”

 

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