Saturday, December 24, 2011

A notorious US agency struggles to adapt

Rocky Barker in the Idaho Statesman: When ecologist Mike Pellant first arrived in 1981, the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area southwest of Boise was called “the asbestos range” because it never burned.

Today, fires are frequent, and invasive cheatgrass has taken over much of the desert in the 484,000-acre area along the Snake River canyon. Climate change has warmed the area and helped the noxious weed spread into the ponderosa pines in the higher elevations of the Boise Foothills. “Ten years ago, 15 years ago, we didn’t see a problem,” said Pellant, now a coordinator of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative.

He and other land managers are struggling to gather the information they need to protect the health and productivity of the lands they manage. That effort came under fire recently from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed a complaint saying the Bureau of Land Management studies weren’t looking at grazing because it was politically sensitive.

The BLM’s rapid eco-regional assessments are looking at the impacts of fire, invasive species, urban sprawl and climate change in nine regions of the sagebrush West, Pellant said. He declined to talk about the complaint or the other regions but said the Northern Great Basin rapid area assessment that includes Idaho will look at grazing as a potential change agent.

But the Idaho-based team is hampered by a lack of landscape-level information about grazing impacts. For decades, the Bureau of Land Management kept its records based on the grazing allotments that are divided among ranchers.

...The Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project did develop a lot of information about the importance of microbiotic crusts on the soil and upcoming threats, including those to the sage grouse. “The BLM just proceeded to ignore all of that information,” said Katie Fite of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the agency’s biggest critics of grazing. It can’t afford to do that now....

The Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area in Idaho, shot by Larry Ridenour of the Bureau of Land Management

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