The Obama-era plan was meant to be a new way forward for species conservation: a way for groups to protect an iconic Western bird whose strutting mating ritual has earned numerous nature show appearances.
At the time of the plan’s announcement, it was hailed as a way to protect the greater sage grouse while avoiding more stringent restrictions that could come from its addition to the list of plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
But some still weren’t happy with the plan, especially oil and gas drilling and mining interests. So, under the Trump administration, it seems plans to save the greater sage grouse could get another look — with an eye toward opening up land for industry interests.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke previously ordered a team to review the state and federal sage grouse plans.
Several Northwest lawmakers vehemently disagreed with possible rollbacks.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the news a “slap in the face to the West.”
“After spending this entire year wasting tax payer dollars on conducting a sham report to hand over our public lands to the oil and gas industry, Secretary Zinke wants to take a bi-partisan agreement to protect the sage grouse, rip it up, and turn it over to mining and petroleum companies,” Cantwell said.
Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said opening up land for oil and gas development would lead to adding sage grouse to the Endangered Species List, what he called the “wrong move.”
“The Secretary of the Interior has repeatedly stated his willingness to listen to local communities, but when it comes to decision time, he will side with the oil and gas industry,” Wyden said. “By reopening these locally developed land management plans, Secretary Zinke is unraveling the years of hard, collaborative work that ranchers and farmers in Oregon and across the West spent developing them.”
The greater sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird known for its elaborate mating dance. Its habitat spreads across 11 Western states, including Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Conservationists say protecting this habitat, often dubbed the sagebrush sea, would in-turn help more than 350 other species, including pronghorn, pygmy rabbit and western burrowing owl.
Sage grouse numbers have steadily declined across its range, after the birds’ habitat has been fragmented by a variety of threats.
In the Northwest sage grouse habitat is diminished by large wildfires, encroaching juniper trees, which form perches for birds of prey ready to eat sage grouse, and excessive grazing. Energy development and mining have also played rolls in breaking up the wide areas the birds need to survive.
It’s difficult to know exact sage grouse population numbers, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 sage grouse live across the range.
In 2015, the federal government decided not to include the sage grouse on the Endangered Species List — because of a “historic conservation campaign” waged by an unlikely partnership of stakeholders across the West.
That decision meant the Bureau of Land Management was in charge of implementing land use plans, specific to each state’s critical sage grouse habitat. It’s those 98 land use plans that are now up for review, according to The New York Times.
Zinke had previously said he didn’t want the review to completely rework the sage grouse plans, but rather to “incorporate more variables,” like captive breeding programs, West Nile virus and corvid predation. Right now the plans focus more on habitat management issues.
But conservation groups said they’re hearing the amendments could be much broader, favoring oil, gas and mining development.
These groups also said they never felt heard — promised opportunities for stakeholders to voice concerns never happened.
“Secretary Zinke has seemingly walked away from his own commitment to listen to western governors, state wildlife agencies and those who rely on this habitat before taking action, instead setting down a path toward benefitting oil, gas and mining companies who see these public lands as simply a source for profit,” said Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at The Wilderness Society, in a statement.
Mark R. Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, said reopening the plans now would violate the process set out by Zinke’s review team.
“This action would contradict the recommendations in the Department of the Interior’s Sage-Grouse Review Team Report from August, which acknowledged that most of the affected states want to retain the existing BLM plans. The report also stated that the Department should first consider policy changes and clarifications to better manage the species before moving to re-open the sage-grouse plans,” Tercek said.
For Oregon, reopening the plans could mean more grazing, wind development and transmission line projects through sage grouse habitat, said Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds Project. The group has argued for stronger sage grouse plans than even those put forth by the Obama administration.
“We’re not going to whitewash the Obama-era sage grouse plans, but getting rid of even these modest concessions to conservation will leave the sage grouse exposed to a strong likelihood of extinction,” Molvar said.
The Interior Department is expected to publish a formal notice of its intent to change the plans sometime this week, The Times reported.