Western Watersheds Project

MEDIA RELEASE: Conservation Group Fights Massive Juniper Cutting Project in Idaho
For Immediate Release

June 28, 2018

Scott Lake, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 429-1679

BOISE, Idaho – Western Watersheds Project (WWP) filed an administrative appeal today opposing a major juniper cutting project proposed for public lands in Southwestern Idaho. The Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat project, or BOSH, would remove western juniper from 617,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) public land over a period of 15 years. WWP says it must appeal the project to stop irreversible damage to important sage-grouse habitat.

WWP’s appeal discusses the impacts of livestock grazing, as well as the likelihood that BLM’s massive juniper cutting project will spread invasive weeds like cheatgrass and medusahead. When native vegetation like juniper is removed, it disturbs the soil and opens up spaces for non-native invasive species to colonize and spread.

“Sage-grouse in Idaho are in trouble, but it’s not because of juniper, it’s because of decades of inappropriate livestock grazing,” said Scott Lake, Idaho Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Cutting juniper won’t help recover sage-grouse, and will most likely make matters worse by spreading cheatgrass and other invasive grasses.”

The project would affect the West Owyhee Conservation Area in Owyhee County, Idaho, which contains some of the most important sage-grouse habitat in the region. Sage-grouse populations in the area have recently declined due to habitat loss. The area is also heavily grazed by domestic cattle and sheep, which threaten sage-grouse by spreading invasive grasses, removing critical nesting cover, and damaging the streamside habitats the birds depend on for brood-rearing. According to WWP’s estimates, approximately three-quarters of grazing allotments in the area were failing the Idaho Standards of Rangeland Health as of 2012, and many of these failures were because of livestock impacts to sage-grouse habitat.

BLM’s planning process for BOSH largely ignored livestock grazing, as well as other related threats such as invasive grasses and wildfire. BLM also ignored the considerable scientific controversy surrounding juniper removal projects.

“Zinke’s Interior Department claims juniper is ‘encroaching,’ into sagebrush habitats, but in many cases, juniper woodlands are simply recovering.” Lake said. He added that BLM has been cutting juniper on public lands for decades, but the reasons have changed over time. “At first, federal agencies cut juniper to increase forage for livestock. Now BLM claims the same practices will benefit sage-grouse and prevent wildfires. But there’s actually very little evidence that this will work the way BLM says.”

Studies have suggested that western juniper—a native species and natural component of Idaho’s sagebrush and bunchgrass habitats—has expanded and retreated several times over thousands of years in response to climactic conditions. Researchers have also observed a close correlation between juniper expansion and livestock grazing. While the precise mechanisms behind these changes are not yet known, scientific evidence has demonstrated that juniper is not a factor in the “cheatgrass-wildfire cycle” that currently threatens sage-grouse.

Lake hopes WWP’s appeal will prompt BLM to take a more holistic view of sage-grouse conservation and stop scapegoating a native species.

“BLM and other federal agencies have focused almost obsessively on juniper because it’s a politically expedient target,” he said. “But the fact remains that even if BLM cuts down all of the juniper on federal lands, it won’t save the sage-grouse. BLM has a blind spot for the damage caused by livestock, and until it addresses that threat, sage-grouse will remain imperiled.”

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