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Public lands at risk

Velvet bull elk
Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the face of mounting environmental and social change, wildlife experts are calling for careful, conscientious administration of valuable public lands and waters.

Over 200 fish and wildlife experts, including 12 former state fish and game agency directors and several former high-ranking federal agency officials, are asking the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to “act promptly and meaningfully to conserve intact and unfragmented BLM-administered public lands across the West.”

The BLM manages more wildlife habitat than any other federal or state agency. The land, which is home to more than 3,000 species of wildlife, comprises 245 million acres in 23 states, and covers some of the nation’s most ecologically diverse and essential habitat.

“We recognize the critical importance of habitat provided by 245 million acres of Bureau of Land Management-administered public lands,” said the experts in a strongly worded letter, “and we are concerned about mounting pressures that could result in the development and fragmentation of these lands. Barring responsive action by the BLM, many large landscapes could cease to support abundant fish and wildlife populations that have been restored and maintained over the past century.”

BLM-managed lands are crucial to the sustainability of big game, upland game birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors and a number of other species of non-game animals, reptiles and amphibians. Such wildlife, experts maintain, are facing increased stress. 

“America’s fish and wildlife resources are under more pressure today than they have been in a hundred years,” stated Dr. Rollin Sparrow, a Wyoming expert with more than 50 years of experience in state and federal wildlife and natural resource management. “Today’s greatest pressures include fragmentation of key habitats and declining habitat function. Now is the time for the BLM to take meaningful actions to conserve and restore intact and unfragmented public land habitats. Any actions must have durable results.”

In an effort to find such durable results, the BLM has launched its “Planning 2.0” process, which will ultimately revise the agency’s land use planning. This represents the first substantial revision of the agency’s land use planning since the BLM began developing land use plans nearly 40 years ago. 

“Planning 2.0 represents an opportunity for the BLM to improve and refine its land use planning process to benefit fish, wildlife and a multitude of public land stakeholders,” said Joel Webster, TRCP Center for Western Lands director. 

Some of the major concerns this process will address are energy development and poorly managed off-road vehicle use, as such activities that can drastically fragment crucial fish and wildlife habitat. 

“I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of development, such as road building, on big game behavior and habitat quality,” said Jim Akenson, an Oregonian with more than 33 years of experience in wildlife research. “As a sportsman in addition to a scientist, I also know the importance of relatively pristine areas for providing high-quality hunting and fishing experiences.”

The Planning 2.0 process will be executed via resource management plans, which determine if and how fish and wildlife habitat conservation and management strategies will be carried out on specific areas of public land. 

“The BLM’s Planning 2.0 process represents and ideal opportunity for the agency to make changes to its land use planning process that better account for the long-term habitat needs of fish and wildlife,” said Ken Mayer, the former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “If thoughtfully designed, a revised planning process could balance energy development with other resources at the landscape level while guiding conservation and restoration of priority habitats, migration corridors and intact backcountry lands.”

Experts hope that by making a concerted effort to conserve, maintain and restore intact, unfragmented habitats, the BLM can make an enduring impact and uphold its commitment to protecting the future of the nation’s wildlife. 

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