On March 30, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a proposal to reshuffle the priorities of the Bureau of Land Management in a way that would put conservation on equal footing with other land uses like grazing and natural resource extraction. Hunters in BLM-rich states have long watched wildlife interests take a backseat to the national demand for energy production, natural resource extraction, and grazing on BLM lands. This proposal stands to change that by balancing those interests, experts say.
The new regulations would require the BLM to “protect intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and make wise management decisions based on science and data,” the proposal reads.
Once published in the Federal Register, the proposal will be open for a 75-day public comment period. If passed, balancing conservation with other established land uses would allow the BLM to continue serving America’s wildlife and the broader outdoor community, BLM director Tracy Stone-Manning tells Outdoor Life in an emailed statement.
“The BLM has welcomed record numbers of hunters, anglers and recreationists to our nation’s remarkable public lands in recent years,” says Stone-Manning, who repurposed some of the proposal’s language. “By better conserving intact landscapes, restoring degraded habitat and balancing responsible development, the proposed Public Lands Rule will help us ensure future generations of Americans will have these very same opportunities. We look forward to hearing from the public on this proposal.”
Conservation as a BLM Land Use
Under this proposal, conservation would be clarified as an official “use” of BLM lands, a potential change that has perked up hunters’ ears.
“This proposal clearly says that conservation is not some passive thing the BLM does by denying [other] uses or inaction,” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Nevada chapter chair Nicholas Maus tells Outdoor Life. “[It’s] elevating conservation to a legitimate, equally valid use of the land. That’s profound.”
This would give the federal agency the ability to lease BLM land specifically for conservation work. Under the proposed rules, entities could apply to lease a chunk of BLM land for a conservation project involving habitat restoration or mitigation. This is similar to how a rancher might apply for a grazing permit or a mining company might apply for a mineral lease. And just as a grazing permit doesn’t prevent public access on that land, BLM lands under conservation leases would still be open to any public use that doesn’t interfere with restoration work, according to the current proposal.
This opportunity could support a variety of wildlife management initiatives that impact game animals in the West. Among them are stopping the annual bleeding of sagebrush acreage, mitigating wildfire and drought, and keeping habitat and migratory corridors intact. Fragmentation has been an especially big issue in BLM-heavy states with major renewable energy value, says Nevada Wildlife Federation executive director and hunter Russell Kuhlman.
“When a wind or solar energy company leases BLM land, a lot of times the first thing they do is build a big fence around it and block it off, and put roads in there so employees can access the [infrastructure],” Kuhlman tells Outdoor Life. “And that obviously has been detrimental to bighorn sheep and mule deer migrations in that range.”
Balancing Wildlife with Clean Energy Demands
But Kuhlman also points out that the death-grip climate change has on the ecosystem is proof that a renewable energy transition is still critical to wildlife health and the future of sustainable hunting in these places.
“Nevada hunters are really starting to see the effects of this major drought. Around the water cooler, mule deer hunters and upland game hunters alike are talking about how it’s getting harder to find quality habitat and quality animals,” Kuhlman says. “On top of the drought, wildfire is another big issue. In Nevada, deer archery season starts in August. I’ve had to ask myself if the wildfire smoke is going to push me out of my area, because it’s hard to glass for mule deer when you can’t see past 100 yards. There’s going to have to be this balance of responsible renewable energy development and protecting these priority habitat areas.”
In addition to emphasizing conservation work on BLM lands, the new regulations would also require that BLM officials consider a specific set of land health standards when signing off on any land use. (As it stands now, agency officials only consider those standards when authorizing grazing permits.) Additionally, the BLM would be encouraged to establish more Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. These are sections of land with “important natural, cultural, and scenic resources.” The ACEC designation is attractive because those areas would still be open to hunting, as well as hands-on restoration and mitigation projects, Maus notes. This makes them a “powerful conservation tool.”