County protests BLM plan in area of sage grouse habitat

Mar 28, 2013 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The Fremont County Commission is at odds with the Bureau of Land Management over balancing environmental protections with development.

On March 22 the county board sent a letter to protest an area of critical environmental concern near Twin Creek in the BLM Lander Field Office's proposed resource management plan.

Commissioners voted 3-0 on March 19 to send the protest. Keja Whiteman was absent and Stephanie Kessler abstained.

"It is, in my opinion, a redundant level of regulation," commission chairman Doug Thompson said. "(The proposed ACEC) is entirely within the sage grouse core area, (so) the executive order is probably sufficient."

The Twin Creek ACEC covers about 35,000 acres on both sides of U.S. Highway 287 southeast of Lander. Designating the area as an ACEC would allow the BLM to regulate uses of the land to protect wildlife.

An executive order signed by Gov. Matt Mead proscribes limits to development close to sage grouse habitat.

A six-year process to write the RMP is nearing its completion, and the protest period is the commission's last chance to weigh in before a final decision is made. The RMP will guide the field office's activities for 10 to 15 years.

A protest only requires a response from the BLM as to why it agrees or disagrees with the protester, but it does not guarantee any action.

In its proposed RMP, the BLM stated the Twin Creek ACEC would contain seven occupied leks, nesting, brood-rearing and winter habitat for sage grouse. Leks are breeding grounds for the birds.

One of the greatest densities of male sage grouse in the state is in the area, according to the BLM, and several studies have been conducted there. The BLM also stated an ACEC in the Twin Creek area would protect crucial winter range for big game.

Thompson said the ACEC would harm the county's interests.

Bentonite, a mineral found in clay, has been found in the Twin Creek area, according to the BLM document. One bentonite mine is in operation in the Lander Field Office's territory in the Gas Hills east of Riverton.

The proposed RMP stated bentonite exploitation "would fragment greater sage-grouse habitat and connectivity in the area." The document also stated the bentonite deposit in the Twin Creek area is of poor quality.

The BLM is also pursuing removing the Twin Creek area from locatable mineral entry, but Congress has to approve the closure.

Were Congress not to approve the removal, the ACEC would provide the BLM a means to protect wildlife.

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