MT BHA Comments on Billings BLM Resource Management Plan

Billings Field Office

5001 Southgate Drive

Billings, Montana 59101

[email protected]

The following are Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (MT BHA) comments regarding the Billings/Pompeys Pillar Resource Management Plan (RMP.

Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers are Montana sportsmen across the state that depend on management of public lands in Montana to support abundant fish and wildlife populations, as well as provide traditional, non-motorized hunting and fishing opportunities. The content and direction provided by the Billings/Pompeys Pillar Resource Management Plan (RMP) Revision is critical to both the wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities.

We believe Preferred Alternative D fails to provide adequate protection for wildlife habitats, fails to provide for appropriate amount of non-motorized hunting opportunities, and fails to provide adequate protection for areas with outstanding characteristics, including wilderness characteristics. We appreciate the honesty in the DEIS assessment of Alternative D re oil and gas development as “least protection of any Alternative”.

Our organization supports the many features of Alternative B, and requests the Final Plan adopt at least the following direction contained in Alternative B:

-Protect wilderness characteristics on 27,000 acres offered in Alt B compared with the preferred Alt D which protects less than 14,000 acres. We request all qualifying areas be managed to retain their wilderness characteristics. Once gone the opportunity for land quality and experiences are gone forever.

-Close and reclaim roads where runoff contributes to accelerated decline in water quality and/or habitat.  

-Prohibit disposal of new surface discharge of oil and gas produced water into streams or other flow connected surface features on BLM administered land. This restriction is the most basic of land stewardship responsibilities.

-Surface occupancy and use for oil and gas exploration (including geophysical operations) would be prohibited within ¼ mile of riparian areas and wetlands, water bodies, perennial streams, and flood plains of perennial streams. Such a short distance from rare features is workable for oil and gas and respects these rare and important land features.

-Surface occupancy and use for oil and gas exploration (including geophysical operations) would be prohibited within ½ mile of Blue and Red Ribbon streams, and YCT populations and YCT suitable habitat.

-Where federal mineral estate exists , designate all State Wildlife Management Areas, Fishing Access Sites, and State Parks as No Lease areas (NL). These are relatively small areas and disproportionately important to hunters and anglers.r

- No new permanent road would be allowed in areas where open road densities are ½mile/square mile(mi/mi2) or less in big game winter range habitat (Maps 15-20), and parturition ranges unless not possible due to conflicts with valid existing rights. All practicable measures would be taken to assure that important habitats with low road densities remain in that condition. BLM would manage to reduce open road densities in big game winter range (Maps 15-20) and parturition ranges where they exceed½ mi/mi 2. Roads would be gated during crucial seasons, closed and/ or reclaimed. Road use is directly responsible for displacement and stress in wintering big game populations.

Conversions from cattle to domestic sheep or goats would be prohibited in allotments within occupied wild sheep habitat (Map 17). New sheep and goat allotments or conversions from cattle to sheep or goats would not be permitted within 14.3 miles from known bighorn sheep habitat. This distance would be greater if deemed necessary through site specific analysis. Disease spread to bighorns is usually devastating to herds for many years, if not forever.

- Surface occupancy and use for oil and gas exploration (including geophysical exploration) and development would be prohibited within designated bighorn sheep range (NSO). Bighorn habitat is relatively small in size and deserves NSO status.

- Surface occupancy and use for oil and gas exploration and development (including geophysical exploration) would be prohibited within 2 miles of sharp-tailed grouse leks(NSO).

-Surface use for oil and gas exploration (including geophysical operations) would be prohibited from December 1 to March 1 within greater sage-grouse winter range or within 4 miles of a sage -grouse lek (TL).

- Manage priority sage ‐grouse habitats so that discrete anthropogenic disturbances cover less than 3% f e total sage grouse habitat regardless of ownership to protect priority sage‐grouse habitats from anthropogenic disturbances that will reduce distribution or abundance of sage‐grouse.

- Create Greater Sage Grouse ACEC on the 154,140 acres of BLM managed surface of greater sage-grouse PPA.

-In Greater Sage Grouse PPAs, Restoration Areas and General SG areas, close to future oil and gas leasing, exploration and/or development and prohibit other surface disturbing and disruptive activities (NL).

-Within a 2 mile buffer of sage grouse nesting, close to future oil and gas leasing, exploration and/or development and prohibit other surface disturbing and disruptive activities (NL).

-In Sage Grouse PPAs, and SG Restoration areas, and general sage grouse areas, exclusion area for commercial renewable energy exploration and facility development.

Grazing permits/leases would be transferred or renewed for C category grazing allotments where the new grazing authorization:(1)Contains the same mandatory terms and conditions (kind of livestock, the active use previously authorized is not exceeded, and grazing does not occur more than 14 days earlier or later than as specified on the

previous permit/lease). (2)Have evaluation reports documenting that they are meeting land health standards. A screening criteria checklist (Appendix L ) would be reviewed prior to renewal. If the answer to each of the questions is “NO”, the renewal is within scope and NEPA compliance can be achieved by preparing a Documentation of NEPA Adequacy (DNA) form which references this RMP/EIS. If the answer to any question is “YES”, the proposed action represents an exception and site specific analysis would be prepared. Category I and M allotments would not meet the criteria for this type of action. Grazing needs additional attention to provide for sustained plant community health, reduce noxious weed spread, provide for wildlife habitat needs and protect and restore riparian areas, sagebrush communities and hardwood draws.

-Relinquished AUMs would be retired

- Areas with active surface disturbance would be unavailable to livestock grazing. The AUMs for these areas would be suspended during surface disturbance activities until at such time grazing would continue in a manner which supports the standards for rangeland health.

Because all Alternatives must be viable when described and presented as an Alternative, the elements noted above as part of Alt B are viable. Therefore, we urge the final Plan adopt the above listed aspects of Alternative B to provide a better balance of resource protection in the Final Plan than does the preferred Alternative D.

Why did the range of alternatives not include one Alternative that protected all sagebrush habitats, while minimizing adverse effects of surface occupancy on wildlife habitat? We believe even Alternative B fails to meet the needs of wildlife habitat and Montana sportsmen, and we request a wider range of alternatives. None of the Alternatives developed provide sufficient prioritization of wildlife habitat, or the recognition of impacts proposed and continuing resource uses have on that wildlife habitat.

We question the decision to not provide sage grouse prioritization on all potential sage grouse habitat, in light of evidence that the species is a candidate for listing as threatened.   We also believe the BLM has a federal land management responsibility to protect and restore all potential sage grouse habitat, given that adjacent private lands do not have the same habitat responsibilities that do the BLM lands. How is the RMP compatible with National and Regional sage grouse planning guidelines, and what assurances are in the RMP to assure on-the-ground positive actions to protecting habitat are completed?   We strongly object to Plan’s proposed potential “exceptions” to the No Surface Occupancy designated in Greater Sage Grouse priority habitats.

Vegetation and Plant Communities:

Draft 4-224 “Impacts from Livestock Grazing Principal adverse direct impacts to special status plants by livestock grazing management would be due to forage utilization, trampling of individual plants, soil compaction and erosion. Forage utilization and trampling can remove, reduce, or alter photosynthetic material from the plant. This could result in reduced plant performance and vigor. Depending on the

developmental stage of the plant when the disturbance occurs, the defoliation or alteration could preclude seed development. If a special status species is palatable and highly sought after by livestock, populations of the special status species plant could be heavily grazed and over time reduced. Soil compaction and erosion could impact special status species by changing and/or removing existing or potential habitat. Conversely, some species could benefit from some degree of livestock grazing as some disturbance could be beneficial to the plant and neighboring habitat. Additionally the placement of water developments, fencing, supplement and salt could improve livestock distributions, but increase livestock use in areas containing sensitive plant species. The installation and maintenance of range improvement projects could increase surface disturbance, and could adversely impact special status species, and their habitats”.

Vegetative health is a key element necessary to maintenance or restoration of wildlife habitat. How does the Preferred Alternative assure that all components of vegetative communities are managed for community plant diversity and health? The Final EIS must provide quantified evidence that documents that vegetative components of vegetative communities within the RMP are within natural range of variability at both the micro and macro scale, and proposed uses will not degrade vegetative diversity and health. We believe the BLM has legal mandates and custodial land management responsibility to insure all components and structure of all vegetative communities are maintained on all landscapes in the Resource Area.   How does this plan assure health and full distribution of at-risk plant communities? On this Resource area, at-risk plant communities include hardwood draws, riparian areas and sagebrush communities. The Plan and EIS must assess the plant community’s and health and distribution of in context of their historical presence and condition as managed under the RMP.   The plant community assessment must also address future risk of invasion by noxious weeds and address containment of mechanisms that accelerate noxious weed invasions. These mechanisms to spread noxious weeds include grazing, off road vehicle use and surface disturbance by oil and gas development. We request the final RMP specify grazing system modifications to assure all vegetative components of plant communities are measured for condition and trend, not just grass. We request the RMP insist all grazing allotment management plans assure health and vigor of sagebrush, hardwood draws and riparian areas, as well as forbs and other native plants.   What assurances are to be incorporated in both the RMP and subsequent allotment management plans to insure grazing usage does not exceed specified use levels regardless of budget shortfalls, drought, wildfire, or other perturbations? This RMP must be modified to be an action-oriented document that places resource condition and health before utilization and extractive activities.

Recently a 140-page opinion by Judge James Heffernan, concluded that the BLM ignored inconvenient data and contrarian views in its environmental assessment of the Utah Duck Creek project, intended to be a showcase for public-lands grazing. What assurances are in this Plan to insure that sufficient, measured and quantified vegetative data will be collected on all allotments? What direction is in the Plan to assure that quantitative data will be collected and used in new allotment management plans? What specific direction is in the RMP to assure vegetative communities especially important to wildlife are properly assessed in each allotment management plan? We request riparian areas and hardwood draws habitat have required specific, statistically sound, quantified collection of vegetative data and condition required as part of each grazing management plan. How will data for non-grass species important to wildlife be measured and its abundance and health be incorporated into allotment management direction and plans?

What specific direction does the Preferred Alternative D contain to assure at risk wildlife habitats and plant communities within riparian areas and hardwood draws are protected or restored?   New direction for special management and emphasis must be placed on riparian and hardwood draw health and distribution. These relatively rare habitats in the Resource Area have disproportionate importance to both native plant and animal communities, both aquatic and terrestrial.   At present, riparian communities in this Resource Area are among the most abused by livestock grazing. Without exclusionary fencing, these areas will continue to be the most intensively grazed in any allotment. How can the RMP assure that grazing systems will not exceed proper use levels for riparian plant communities? The final RMP must specify actions on all allotment management plans to assure grazing use is allowed only when riparian areas have been individually assessed and quantitatively documented to be in excellent condition. RMP direction must direct that key riparian species, including riparian hardwood plants, must be restored where they historically occurred.   Exclusion fencing, beaver restoration, other techniques and suspension of grazing permits must be evaluated and promoted in the final RMP. Simple rest rotation grazing has not proven to be successful in restoring the riparian vegetative and structural components of this plant community. The RMP must mandate specific procedures and restorative actions to assure significant riparian health improvement before any new allotment management plans are approved where riparian areas occur.

Draft “Impacts from Livestock Grazing…

“General impacts from Alternative B livestock grazing actions would be similar to Alternative A; however Alternative B also places priority management on allotments that are not meeting standards for rangeland health, which includes riparian areas that are not in PFC and establishes increased monitoring on 46 miles of riparian habitat on fish bearing streams. These management actions would reduce grazing impacts on riparian resources by taking actions to increase riparian functionality. Alt D “Riparian and wetlands areas not rated as PFC would be monitored and managed to ensure movement towards PFC.”

It appears to us that little in the Plan is designed to change current grazing practices, especially since the stated impacts even in Alternative B (a resource emphasis alternative) general impacts are the same as the existing management Alternative A.   Instead, we believe a more comprehensive direction for riparian areas should state “Exclusion fencing or other structural or grazing systems will be employed on all riparian areas to insure health, vigor and full potential of riparian areas, especially in Priority Sage grouse areas.” Recent science has documented that development of alternative water sources are not effective in preventing overgrazing of riparian areas. Likewise, we find that riparian exclosures are valuable in documenting the potential of riparian areas ungrazed versus grazed. We request the final advocate retention of existing exclosures and add additional exclosures on each allotment’s riparian areas.

What specific RMP direction will assure native plant communities be protected and restored where surface disturbing activities are permitted? We request safeguards for protection or restoration of healthy vegetative communities be mandated on all surface activities to minimize surface disturbance, prevent noxious weed invasions, topsoil protection, and plant utilization standards. Adequate safeguards using the best science and techniques must be mandated as requirements for all future surface disturbing activities in the final RMP. The RMP must direct timely action to minimize disturbed acreage with rapid, effective native plant restoration on disturbed sites. There are important timing elements to plant re-establishment on disturbed sites which must be mandated as condition of surface occupancy activity permitting.

Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat

What specific requirements in the RMP assure the health and potential productivity of wildlife habitat is maintained or enhanced where surface occupancy is permitted and/or where grazing is permitted ? The health of the wildlife community is dependent on how the BLM manages its surface activities and uses. We request documentation of the current health and distribution of all components of native wildlife communities as a baseline before the RMP is implemented. While big game are often the primary species evaluated and considered, we know that many other species may be even more vulnerable to surface activities. We request documentation and quantified assessment of how the Alternatives affect all components of the native wildlife community.   This would certainly include candidate or listed species, and species of special concern. It would also include commonly hunted species including deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep, as well as sharptail grouse. We request specific actions be identified for implementation in the revised RMP to assure all habitats for each of these species be protected and restored.

How will the RMP protect or restore hardwood draws and other vulnerable habitat types? No less important to our members is assuring the health of sharptail grouse habitat. Sharptail grouse populations and other wildlife species are likely limited by the past mismanagement of hardwood draws that are very susceptible to damage or elimination by domestic livestock grazing that are vital as winter habitat.. In addition, short grass prairie health, including nesting cover and insect populations are essential to healthy sharptail populations.   We request the final EIS document the historic distribution of hardwood draws in the Plan area and map and document condition and distribution of these habitats where they historically occurred. Where less than full potential, we request specific actions or standards be specified for allotment management plans to restore health and distribution of hardwood draws. We also request an assessment of present abundance and distribution of wildlife species obligate to hardwood draws.

We support the proposed conversion of crested wheat stands back to native vegetation, but urge converting the quanitity of the wheatgrass stands s reflected in Alternative B rather than far less acres in Alternative D.

How will the RMP protect all existing and potential sagebrush communities and their obligate species? The environmental consequence section fails to discuss how current and proposed grazing is likely to affect sagebrush composition, density, vigor and reproduction as well as the effects of sagebrush changes on obligate wildlife species. Sagebrush communities are vulnerable to grazing systems that are designed to focus and foster grass dominance and vigor at the expense of other vegetative components. In addition, sagebrush is vulnerable to noxious weed invasions, and other surface disturbing activities including oil and gas development. We request specific required actions be identified in the final RMP to assure grazing systems in sagebrush habitat types foster health and recruitment of younger sagebrush in such communities. We request the final plan direct changes to grazing strategies to insure health, density, vigor and reproduction of sagebrush in all sagebrush habitat types. We advocate aggressive restoration of native vegetation on non-native plant communities, especially in sagebrush habitat types, and key winter ranges for big game.

We request oil and gas leasing be prohibited within 4 miles of a sage grouse lek and sage grouse nesting and wintering habitat. Studies (4-286) have confirmed impacts of oil and gas activities within 4 miles of sage grouse leks.   We also request areas within one-half mile of sharptail grouse leks be closed to leasing. In addition, minimal surface disturbance to sagebrush communities must be required in all surface disturbing activities, including road construction, drilling pads, pipeline installation and other such activities. To have effective restoration, the Plan must specify topsoil retention must be required, and immediate native plant community restoration initiated once a site has been disturbed. The Plan must specify monitoring of all restoration activities connected with Surface Occupancy. What RMP direction assures all surface disturbance, including new roads and drill pads have native plant communities restored immediately and noxious weed control measures be implemented throughout the project life. The project “footprint” must be reduced to minimum necessary where surface occupancy is permitted. Native plant species must be mandated in all restoration efforts.

How will permitted infrastructure and grazing systems be modified to assure needs of sage grouse are protected or enhanced? Specific to sage grouse, overhead power lines must be prohibited or relocated outside sage grouse habitats.   Fences must be designed or modified and located to be sage grouse friendly. Residual ground cover must be assured in all grazing plans during nesting and rearing time periods.  

How will the RMP insure habitat for big game species is managed to it biological potential? Habitat for big game species, including deer, bighorn sheep, elk and antelope, must be provided throughout the Resource Area where historically present.   This includes all the plant communities used must be managed for viability and distribution where historically present.   Specific direction must be included that mandates all fences be wildlife friendly regarding location and construction standards.   Migration corridors must be identified and mapped in the RMP, and science based habitat modifications and human occupancy restrictions be required for any project within the RMP. We request that all winter range,(not just critical winter range) for all big game species and elk calving areas be designated as Closed to leasing and/or No Surface Occupancy with no exceptions provided.  

We request all bighorn sheep habitat, including lambing areas, be closed to leasing. Where currently under lease, we request a No Surface Occupancy stipulation be applied in bighorn sheep habitat, Disturbance, poaching, habitat alteration, noxious weed invasions are all risks intensified by oil and gas exploration and development. We request reconsideration of the preferred alternative allowing any potential for oil and gas surface occupancy within the habitat of bighorn sheep.   The quality of the hunt is defined in part by the natural surroundings, uninterrupted by the sights and sounds of man.   We request bighorn sheep and a one mile buffer around bighorn sheep habitat be closed to leasing, or as a minimum be designated as No Surface Occupancy. We also request all occupied and potential bighorn sheep habitat be designated as high priority for travel management, with an objective of minimizing motorized travel.  

Travel Management and Recreation

Draft “ Alternatives B is the most restrictive, designating more routes closed or open to administrative use only, which would have less impact on riparian areas from effects of erosion, sediment delivery, unnatural drainage patterns and potential weed infestations”

How will motorized travel be managed to insure all resources are protected, off road travel is prohibited and non-motorized recreation opportunities are enhanced and protected from motorized intrusions?   All motorized travel must be restricted to designated routes, and enforcement mechanisms increased to assure compliance. Allowing off road travel leaves tracks other motorized users commonly follow which often becomes another road. Big game species are displaced by motorized travel, sometimes to private lands where they are not available to public land hunters. The private land harboring of wildlife displaced from BLM lands by the abundance of motorized use is a substantial issue for Montana hunters and ability to manage big game numbers. This issue needs to be addressed and resolved in the Final Plan.

More control of motorized use in the RMP is needed to reduce the displacement of big game to adjacent private lands where there is more security from motorized disturbance. The result of big game displacement is often harboring of big game on private lands and therefore the reduction of huntable big game on public lands, thus reducing both harvest and quality of hunting. We request the Environmental Consequences Section of the EIS fully describe the adverse effects of open roads to wildlife and wildlife displacement and its effect on public land hunting opportunities. Road density needs to be recognized as a significant issue, and Plan direction to reduce road density as well as create significant large blocks of BLM land where motorized use is prohibited.

We strongly object to any provisions for game retrieval off designated routes, and we support the statement not providing for game retrieval in preferred alternative D.     Game retrieval provisions are unnecessary. Hunters must consider how they are to retrieve game before they shoot an animal. Any such provisions are ripe for abuse and cannot be administered effectively by existing BLM personnel and law enforcement.   Such activities ruin the experience for non-motorized hunters and others wanting to escape from sights and sounds of motorized vehicles. Big Game other hunters are be seeking are displaced by game retrieval activities and therefore, the non-motorized hunter’s hunt is ruined.   Off road motorized tracks encourage others to follow, and noxious weeds are spread into important habitats. Allowing game retrieval is unnecessary, expensive to administer, and ripe for abuse.

We believe much stronger direction is needed to contain off road travel and restore non-motorized conditions to important wildlife habitats. Given that motorized travel spreads noxious weeds, fragments habitat, accelerates erosion, and displaces wildlife, we believe a much higher percentage of wildlife habitat, including all sage grouse habitat and winter ranges of big game must have minimal motorized routes open to the public.

ORV user created routes promote wildlife displacement, fragmentation of continuous secure wildlife habitat, spread of noxious weeds and accelerated erosion. We request the final recognize the impacts of ATVs and ORVs on the above discussed resource values and direct actions and future travel planning to eliminate routes that promote wildlife displacement, fragment otherwise secure wildlife habitat and foster spread of noxious weeds.

How is off motorized use assessed as to its effect on wildlife and non-motorized recreation opportunities in the Plan and EIS? We request a map delineation of each and all motorized routes in the RMP to serve as a current baseline, and as documentation of effects of motorized use on wildlife and wildlife habitat. We also request the EIS complete as assessment of the cumulative effect of existing motorized use on wildlife displacement, noxious weed spread, non-motorized hunting opportunities, and other wildlife related resource damage.

As part of our request for delineation of non-motorized recreation areas, MT BHA supports inclusion of those areas having wilderness qualities and non-motorized management of the areas with wilderness qualities contained within the RMP.   All of these areas should be receive high priority for non-motorized recreation opportunities, and also provide additional security for many wildlife species.

We strongly object to the oversimplified and negative Environmental Consequences statement on p 2-193 “The Proposed RMP management actions for closing 99% of the decision area to cross-country OHV travel in combination with similar management actions of adjacent field offices and agencies would incrementally reduce opportunities for cross-country OHV travel”. This statement concludes that the effect of closing the majority of BLM lands ito cross-country travel is negative. In contrast, we believe such closure is very positive to preventing noxious weed spread, erosion, wildlife displacement and opportunities for non-motorized recreation. We request a more comprehensive discussion of benefits of cross country travel be included.

How does the RMP address public hunting access to isolated BLM parcels where no public access exists? How does permitted outfitting on BLM lands affect public hunting access? We request the RMP balance the impacts of the outfitting industry and its adverse effects on non-guided Montana hunters. We believe the outfitter industry contributes to land-locking out non-guided hunters, particularly on isolated BLM parcels without public access. Options which must be considered and evaluated in the final RMP are 1) prioritize obtaining legal public access to all presently isolated BLM parcels, 2) prohibit outfitting on all BLM lands within the Resource Area to discourage locking out public hunters, and 3) restricting permitted outfitting to only those BLM lands which are landlocked, retaining the other accessible BLM lands for Montana non-guided hunters.            

We request our comments be individually assessed and specific comments or response provided to each comment. We request being notified of any additional public comment opportunity on this RMP.


s/greg l munther

Greg L Munther, Chairman, Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

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