Guest view: Challenging a sagebrush-juniper destruction project in the Elkhorns
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Guest view: Challenging a sagebrush-juniper destruction project in the Elkhorns

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The 300,000-acre Elkhorn Mountains are state and federally designated to be managed to prioritize benefits to wildlife above all other uses. Yet the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Iron Mask Project, which is in the Elkhorn Area of Critical Environmental Concern, authorizes cutting and burning juniper trees and limber pine on 5,397 acres to benefit cattle, not wildlife.

The Iron Mask area was acquired by the BLM using funding intended for purchasing critical wildlife habitat. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council challenged the Iron Mask native habitat destruction project in 2018. The federal court agreed and halted the project last year because the BLM’s analysis was limited to the theoretical positive effects but did not analyze the overwhelming negative effects of burning sagebrush-juniper habitat on wildlife. Ignoring the court’s order, the Trump administration now wants to go forward to benefit a few cattle ranchers without analyzing the damage their project will have on public lands and a wide variety of native wildlife.

The benefits of the juniper trees slated for destruction are enormous. They produce up to 20,000 berries per square meter of foliage that provide high-energy food for big game as well as migratory birds, wild turkeys and upland game birds throughout fall and winter, regardless of deep snow.

Junipers in the Intermountain West also provide breeding habitat for at least 43 species of birds, many that have been identified as Montana Species of Concern. These include the lark sparrow, loggerhead shrike, Cassin’s finch, Clark’s nutcracker, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, northern goshawk, flammulated owl and pinyon jay, one of the fastest declining bird populations in North America that depend heavily on the dense forests of juniper for nutrition and nesting. Yet the BLM ignored these impacts.

That’s particularly concerning given that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 3 billion, a stunning 29%, over the past half-century. As noted by the New York Times, that was mostly due to loss of habitat and increased use of pesticides. Montana already has millions of cows, but now the BLM wants to destroy even more native bird habitat for cattle.

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Cheat grass: An invasive noxious weed that increases wildfire risk

The BLM also ignored cheat grass, a very aggressive noxious weed that moves in after burning sagebrush and cutting down junipers and has proven almost impossible to eradicate across the West. Cheat grass replaces the forbs that sage grouse depend on to feed their chicks and after very early spring dry out, is inedible for wildlife or cattle and has seeds that are so sharp they can penetrate the stomach and intestines of animals that ingest them and blind the eyes of nesting birds that use native sagebrush habitat.

Cheat grass can lengthen the fire season by about two months in the spring and fall because it’s highly flammable once dried out, creating extreme wildfire hazards annually. By comparison, peer-reviewed studies found undisturbed sagebrush-juniper habitat only burns every 100 to 200 years in the Intermountain West.

The BLM’s Iron Mask Project will destroy native juniper and sagebrush habitat on public lands to grow more grass for cattle. Doing so will negatively impact native birds and big game while increasing wildfire risk. The lawless Trump administration ignored a federal court order to analyze the cumulative impacts of removing native sagebrush and juniper habitat on wildlife, noxious weed invasion and increased wildfire risk. Simply put, we’re going back to court to force the BLM to follow the law, obey court orders and protect public lands and wildlife.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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