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Simpson Questions BLM Director on Sage Grouse, Grazing

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson took issue with proposals to cut BLM range management funding in the President's FY13 budget request during a hearing on the BLM's budget proposal in the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee yesterday.  Simpson chairs the subcommittee, which oversees BLM’s budget.  In addition to expressing his concern about budget cuts to the grazing program, he focused on the BLM's sage grouse conservation initiative.

The BLM has struggled under a huge grazing permit backlog over the past decade.  In order to permanently reduce this backlog and provide the BLM with the tools it needs to use its resources for effective land management, the FY 2012 BLM budget included a significant increase for rangeland management.  In spite of BLM's efforts to address the grazing permit backlog within the next few years, the FY 2013 request cuts that budget by $15 million.

"I'm very disappointed with the proposed decrease in range management.  Back in 2009, we talked about the importance of permanently reducing the backlog of grazing permits, which has been a problem at the BLM for years.  Now the BLM has gone from completing 84% of the grazing permits for renewal in 2009 to only planning to complete 33% in fiscal year 2013, " said Simpson. "This is simply irresponsible. While I understand the workload of permit renewals fluctuates from year to year, this level of completion is inexcusable, particularly given this subcommittee's focus on the issue.  

"Further," he continued, "the budget proposes to add a new grazing fee, which would increase what ranchers pay now by 74%--violating the current mandate that says the fee can't be raised by more than 25% a year.  There is a good reason for this mandate. Livestock producers, just like other small businesses, need certainty--they need to know their grazing permits will be renewed in a timely fashion and that fees won't dramatically increase from year to year. Despite the fact that range management is a large part of BLM's responsibilities, and that state and local offices in Idaho and other areas have stepped up to address these challenges in spite of major hurdles thrown their way, it doesn't seem to be a priority for this budget."

Chairman Simpson also expressed his concern about the possibility of sage grouse being listed as an endangered species. He pressed Director Abbey about the BLM's sage grouse conservation strategy and whether it will be effective in preventing a listing.

Simpson commended BLM for taking  a proactive approach on the conservation of the sage grouse and reflecting this priority in the proposed budget. "That said, I want to make sure this investment will actually improve sage grouse habitat and prevent the species from being listed in 2015, which would be devastating across the West," he said.  "Now more than ever we need to see a return on this investment, not just waste this funding on planning exercises that don't help us reach our goal. Some of the greatest threats to the sage grouse are invasive weeds and wildfire. How will this investment be used to control cheat grass, for example, and prevent fires that destroy sage grouse habitat? Preventing this listing is a top priority for me, and it will require close partnership between federal agencies, states, and local land users.  We have to get this one right."

Director Abbey committed to doing everything possible to prevent a sage grouse listing, pointing to work already being done with states and stakeholders to identify and implement best management practices. He noted that the greatest threat to sage grouse is fire and indicated that the bureau is working to prevent and suppress wildfires in core habitat areas.

As Chairman of the subcommittee, Simpson has scheduled 16 oversight hearings to review the president's budget proposal for agencies under the subcommittee's jurisdiction.