Interior Department to Overhaul Obama’s Sage Grouse Protection Plan

Interior Department to Overhaul Obama’s Sage Grouse Protection Plan

Source: The New York Times
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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will seek to reconsider an Obama-era blueprint for protecting the greater sage grouse, a move that could lead to new mineral leasing, grazing and other commercial activities across the quirky bird’s Western habitat.

The Interior Department intends this week to publish a formal notice of intent to amend 98 sage grouse habitat management plans across 10 states, according to multiple agency and state officials who have been briefed on the effort. Those plans, completed in 2015, were adopted after a decade of negotiations among conservationists, sportsmen and extraction industries as well as federal, state, local and tribal authorities.

The elaborate compromise was designed to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, which would have required much greater restrictions on activities within the bird’s broad range.

The sage grouse, which looks like a chesty chicken but struts like a spiky-tailed peacock, is renowned for its elaborate mating dance.

The agency’s decision is not entirely unexpected. Earlier this year, Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, ordered a review of the sage grouse plans, in part to determine whether they were hindering energy production. A task force recommended changes that could loosen protections for the bird.

Environmental activists say reopening the plans, as opposed to making adjustments administratively, threatens to dismantle protections altogether. But oil and gas industry leaders hailed the move as overdue.

“I’m happy to see that it looks like it’s coming out,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said of the Interior Department notice. She called the state plans developed under the Obama administration a “deeply flawed” one-size-fits-all approach that exaggerated the threats posed by natural resource extraction.

“This Interior Department is much more willing to cooperate with states, and I think that is very positive for ensuring the sage grouse is protected without killing jobs and economic opportunities,” she said.

The seven-page draft notice says that the Bureau of Land Management intends to consider amending “all or some B.L.M. land use plans that were amended or revised in 2014 or 2015 regarding greater sage grouse conservation in the states of California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Montana.” The notice, it says, will begin a 45-day comment process during which anyone can propose changes to the plans.

Several Western state officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak for their governors, said Interior Department officials indicated they would seek amendments to the sage grouse plans in a conference call on Monday. The call included Kathleen Benedetto, a special assistant to Mr. Zinke who was a leader of the sage grouse review team.

Precisely what changes the Interior Department may seek are yet unknown, but the regulatory process could take years. People on the call said Interior Department officials suggested they needed to start the process now in order to complete it within President Trump’s first term.

Still, the prospect of changes alarmed environmental activists.

“This is a big deal because these plans were the result of an unprecedented effort among dozens of groups,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She accused Mr. Zinke of planning changes that favored mining and petroleum companies and that would hurt the bird’s chances of survival.

“Zinke might as well have formed a shotgun posse to kill off the sage grouse directly,” she said.

Brian Rutledge, director of the Audubon Society’s sagebrush ecosystem initiative, said that the sage grouse plan was developed over many years and based on extensive input.

“A move to amend the plans would be pulling the rug out from under literally hundreds of Western stakeholders from all parts of the political spectrum who came together to protect an entire ecosystem,” Mr. Rutledge said.

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to comment on the agency’s effort. She cited a news release about Mr. Zinke’s decision in June to launch a sage grouse review team.

The changes could be challenged in court and could prompt some groups to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to add the grouse and some 350 other species in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem to the endangered species list.