MT BHA Comments on Hiline BLM Resource Management Plan

Havre Field Office

3990 Highway 2 West

Havre, MT 59501

[email protected]

The following are Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (MT BHA) comments regarding the HiLine Resource Management Plan (RMP) Revision.

Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers are Montana sportsmen across the state who 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 HiLine Resource Management Plan (RMP) Revision is critical to both the wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities.

We believe Preferred Alternative E 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 and cultural features.

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 26 areas totaling 386,000 acres compared with the preferred Alt E which protects only two areas totaling less than 11,000 acres. We request the 26 areas be managed to retain their wilderness characteristics.

-Close oil and gas leasing in 5 areas with wilderness characteristics

-Direct full protection of traditional cultural properties. We request the Little Rockies and Sweetgrass Hills TCPs be protected by restricting motorized travel, and closing these entire areas to oil and gas leasing.

- Protect grassland bird/greater sage grouse areas by closing these areas to oil and gas leasing. We advocate closing priority sage grouse and grassland priority areas to leasing, and No Surface Occupancy on the remaining grassland/sage grouse habitats.

Adopt Alternative B Greater Sage Grouse Priority Areas and closing these areas to oil and gas leasing. As a potentially listed species, the BLM has an obligation to protect all sage grouse habitat, and in non-priority sage grouse areas, as a minimum require No Surface Occupany stipulations.

-Close future oil and gas leasing on deer, elk and antelope winter ranges. We advocate the winter ranges of these species as well as all bighorn sheep habitat be closed to future oil and gas leasing. Currently leased areas must be protected by at least No Surface Occupancy stipulations.

Close leasing within ½ mile of sharptail leks and require no surface occupancy during March 15 to June 30 within one mile of sharptail leks to protect nesting security. We advocate these restrictions be applied to the final plan.

Because all Alternatives must be viable when described, 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 E.

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. Prioritizing only those sage grouse habitats with greater than 50% BLM ownership in a 10,000 acre block diminishes the importance of BLM sage grouse habitat, even when some habitat fragmentation may or may not occur via other ownerships. We request an assessment and protection of all sage grouse habitat in the Resource area, regardless of ownership. There are private-land leasing programs designed to protect existing sagebrush communities on private lands.   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 is 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:

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 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.

The described “Environmental Consequences” section limits the discussion of grazing to one paragraph, noting that all alternatives are similar. We object that the Plan does not evaluate a range of Grazing Alternatives. We request one or more alternatives evaluate a grazing strategy that places emphasis on minimizing spread of noxious weeds, emulating historic plant community composition, protection and restoration of hardwoods draws and riparian areas. The Plans Environmental Consequences of Alternative E fails to recognize the impacts of the current grazing strategy to the presence and health of hardwood draws and consequence to obligate wildlife species. The Environmental Consequences section of Alternative E also fails to discuss the consequences of current grazing on health and vigor of riparian areas and consequences to obligate wildlife species. The Section also fails to discuss the likelihood that current grazing systems will lead to a vegetative community that does not emulate historic vegetative communities prior to domestic grazing. There is no discussion of impacts of grazing likelihood to contribute significantly to increased noxious weed spread and the impacts of such spread on wildlife species.

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?

We request the Final Plan as a minimum the 461,000 ac of Grassland/Sage grouse priority habitats and the 961,000 ac Priority Sage grouse habitat be designated as ACEC as identified in Alternative B.

What specific direction does the Preferred Alternative E 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.

We find that improvements specified in all alternatives for riparian are limited to the statement “Alternate water facilities would be installed to relieve grazing impacts on riparian areas inside of priority sage grouse habitats” Instead, we believe a more comprehensive direction would 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 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, rather than a Plan suggestion for evaluation of removal of such exclosures.

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 listed or listed species including Greater Sage Grouse, Black Footed Ferret, Mountain Plover, Interior Least Tern, Pallid Sturgeon, Whooping Crane and Sprague’s Pipit. But it would also include Bald and Golden eagles. 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.

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 2 miles of a sage grouse lek and sage grouse nesting and wintering habitat, as currently reflected as viable in Alternative B. We also request areas within one-half mile of sharptail grouse leks be closed to leasing as reflected as Viable in Alternative B. 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 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.  This direction is currently reflected in Alternative B.

The Cumulative Effects discussion of Preferred Alternative E is revealing in the likely impacts to wildlife under the Preferred Alternative E. The DEIS states “Under Alternative E mean well densities on BLM and in each of the oil and gas development potential areas would exceed 1.04 wells/mi² except in the very low development potential areas (0.05 wells per square mile) (Table 4.98). Road densities would exceed the upper threshold in the moderate development potential area and the lower threshold in the high and low development potential areas (Table 4.99). A significant decline in populations of big game animals would be expected within high, moderate and low potential areas under Alternative E except in the very low development potential areas because of the density of wells and roads. The greatest impact during the life of the plan would occur in the high development potential areas, including the Bears Paw South area, where mean well densities on BLM land would rise from the current 0.45 wells/mi² to 2.36 wells/mi² (a 428% increase) and road densities would increase from 0.47 to 1.21 miles of road/mi². This would result in a direct and indirect long-term loss of most habitat for big game in the high development potential areas.” While we applaud the recognition of the cumulative impacts, we believe the BLM has the responsibility to modify such activity by NSO and closing important wildlife habitats to oil and gas leasing. Because all alternatives must be viable, we request, as a very minimum, that all portions of Alternative B related to wildlife habitat be incorporated into the Final Plan direction.  

We request all bighorn sheep habitat, including lambing areas, be closed to leasing as described in Alternative B. We are particularly concerned about lack of protection in bighorn sheep habitat within Bearpaw South, as it relates to future natural gas developments. Where currently under lease, we request a No Surface Occupancy stipulation be applied in bighorn sheep habitat, This population of bighorn sheep is recognized nationally for both the genetic quality of bighorn rams as well as the unique prairie setting in which hunting occurs. Disturbance, 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 this bighorn sheep population.   In Bighorn Sheep Hunting units 680/620 the 25 available tags receive over 6000 applicants each year, for a less than 0.5% chance of drawing.   A Governor’s Sheep tag used in this area to harvest a ram in 2012 sold for over $300,000. A bighorn sheep hunt is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for one of the lucky tag recipients. 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.  

Travel Management and Recreation

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, sometimes to private lands where they are not available to public land hunters. Noxious weeds are spread by motor vehicles.

We believe much stronger direction is needed to contain off road travel and restore non-motorized conditions to important wildlife habitats. We note that only 28,000 (1% of the Resource Area) acres are designated as high priority for future travel management planning, while 700,000 have moderate priority and a whopping 1,700,000 acres have low priority. Given that motorized travel spreads noxious weeds, 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 receive high priority for travel planning.

We object to the dismissal of the scale of ORV/ATV impacts in the Environmental Consequences Section, as stated to have impacts limited to only 124 acres. 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.

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, as proposed in Alternatives C and D, and we support the statement not providing for game retrieval in preferred alternative E. However we object to direction leaving the subject as an open topic in future travel planning.   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.

How is off motorized use assessed as to its effect on wildlife and non-motorized recreation opportunities in the Plan and EIS? We request an 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.

We also note there is no effort to protect Traditional Cultural Property areas in the Little Rockies and Sweetgrass Hills from abuse by ORVs. Not only do these sites have notable archeological features, but they also provide nesting habitat for raptors and other cliff nesting species. User created ORV routes already have been established dangerously close to these sites, and may have already displaced sensitive avian nesters such as prairie falcons. How can the RMP recognize TCP’s and direct management to protect these resources from uncontrolled motorized access and potential abuse? We request the Plan direct all Traditional Cultural Properties in both the little Rockies and Sweetgrass hills be closed to off-road motorized use, and be a high priority for travel planning.   How can a proposed Little Rockies Recreation Management Zone featuring OHV and ATV uses be compatible with protection of both cultural properties as well as sensitive wildlife species? We object to establishing a featured OHV/ATV use area in or near TCPs. In addition we request the Little Rockies TCP have No Surface Occupancy for the 38,000 as currently described as part of viable Alternative B. We believe limiting the NSO in the Little Rockies TCP to only 5936 acres adequately protects the cultural and unique wildlife habitat values. In addition, we request any forest vegetation projects in this area obliterate all timber access roads to better protect these sites integrity as well as reduce vandalism from new motorized access to these cultural resources.

We request a balanced reallocation of recreation opportunities as defined in the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum system to better provide significantly more non-motorized recreation setting opportunities. The Preferred Alternative allocates 2,111,311 acres to “Roaded Natural”, while only 7481 acres to “Semi-primitive non-motorized”. We do not consider this to provide a balance of recreation opportunities.   We also note ALL alternative consider establishment of no more than 7000-8000 acres of semiprimitive non-motorized ROS setting. How can the RMP process consider a ROS range of alternatives has been developed and evaluated? We request development of a new alternative that provides substantially more semiprimitive nonmotorized setting.   We request designation of at least 25% of the Resource Area be designated as no closer than one mile from a designated motorized route to provide a better balance of “Semi-primitive non-motorized” recreation opportunities . We request such non-motorized areas be formally delineated on a RMP map and surface disturbing activities be strongly discouraged from such lands. This map of delineated non-motorized areas should be directed to be a framework for future travel management planning. As part of such delineation, MT BHA supports inclusion of those 26 areas having wilderness qualities and non-motorized management of the 26 such areas with wilderness qualities contained within the RMP.   All of these 26 areas should be receive high priority for future travel plan management planning to provide for non-motorized recreation opportunities, and also provide additional security for many wildlife species. These 26 areas could be the core of semi-primitive non-motorized areas within the Resource Area.

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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