Interior Department Relaxes Aspects of Sage Grouse Protection

The Department of the Interior has released the results of a 60-day review of the Obama administration’s conservation plan to protect the greater sage grouse. The review, ordered in June by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was intended to determine if that plan interferes with Trump administration efforts to increase energy production on federal lands.

In light of the newly published review, Secretary Zinke recommends reprioritizing oil development within the broader 2015 plan, among other changes. Environmental groups have rebuked the overhaul, arguing that changes to the 2015 plan could dilute protections for the species.

“Today, the administration’s review opens the door to significant changes to the sage-grouse plans, which could undercut the sound science used to develop those plans and jeopardize what we know the bird needs to live and thrive,” said Eric Holst, the associate vice president of working lands for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement. “By reopening the federal plans, we risk undermining and undoing one of the greatest collaborative conservation efforts in our nation’s history.”

The Obama plan was drawn up as an alternative to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to list the sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The approach, which involved a five-year negotiation between 1,100 ranchers, environmental groups, and state and federal agencies, was hailed as an unprecedented collaboration that had reduced the threat to sage grouse habitat while avoiding a more stringent regulatory intervention that might hinder economic development. Fish and Wildlife declined to list the sage grouse after the collaborative conservation plan was unveiled in 2015.

The sage grouse habitat spans 173 million acres in 11 western states, including the Dakotas, and three Canadian provinces. Before the West was settled, the sage grouse once roamed over 290 million acres. In launching the 60-day review, Zinke said: “While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor.” Rewriting the Obama plan could extend beyond President Trump’s term, when public comment periods, new proposals and legal challenges are taken into account.


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