WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will overhaul an Obama-era protection plan for the greater sage grouse in a way that will also allow for increased economic development, in particular oil and gas production, in Western states, a move criticized by conservationists as “careless.”
In a memo published Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his agency to implement nine management recommendations from an internal review team that include providing greater flexibility for management decisions and modifying or issuing “new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development.” Zinke wrote he is “particularly interested in assisting the states in setting sage-grouse population objectives to improve management of the species.”
Sage grouse, ground-dwelling game birds with an elaborate mating ritual, used to number in the millions. Loss of sagebrush habitat from development and invasive plant species has decimated the population, now estimated between 200,000 and 500,000. Their current range spans about 257,000 square miles across 11 Western states, less than half of the species’ historic range.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2015 that, as a result of collaborative efforts among federal, state and local entities, the greater sage grouse did not warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that drew criticism from both environmentalists and oil, gas and mining interests. Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called it a “milestone for conservation in America.”
In June, Zinke signed a secretarial order to review the Obama-era plan. The goal, he told reporters at the time, was to improve collaboration between federal agencies and 11 Western states to ensure continued protections of the imperiled bird while providing states with “greater flexibility” to pursue opportunities for energy development and job growth.
“There have been some complaints by several of the governors that their ability to use federal lands — whether it’s for oil and gas, recreation, timber, across the board — that some of the heavy-handedness on habitats don’t allow for some of those uses, and they’ve come up with what they believe are innovative plans and workarounds,” Zinke said in June. “And we certainly want to work with states if that’s their desire to do that.”
Conservation groups were quick to criticize Interior’s plan, which they said disregarded science and threatened years of collaborative work.
In a statement, Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at The Wilderness Society, called the recommendations “a sideways attempt to abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development and in favor of discredited, narrow tools like captive breeding and population targets.”
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, called the plan “careless” and said it “will no doubt fast-track the greater sage-grouse’s listing as an endangered species.”
“When you hear the same message from Western governors, ranchers, your own wildlife biologists and land managers — and you still ignore it, that’s a problem,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress. “These recommendations confirm that Zinke is on a path to derail years of collaborative work, putting an entire landscape — and the economy that relies on it — at risk.”
The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for America’s oil and natural gas industry, said energy development and sage grouse populations can coexist.
“Removing administrative barriers to conservation is critical to protecting the greater sage grouse without hindering responsible energy development and local economic opportunities,” API Upstream Director Erik Milito said in a statement.