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Courtesy of the Audubon Society

Interior Department Mulls Dropping Greater Sage Grouse Plans

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reportedly mulling whether to revise federal plans for managing greater sage grouse across most of the West.

Once numbering in the millions, the greater sage grouse population across the West has shrunk to approximately half-a-million during good years, sometimes dipping as low as 200,000 birds. The grouses’ population decline is compounded by fragmentation of their habitat, which spans hundreds of millions of acres of sagebrush.

Previous administrations have mulled placing the bird on the Endangered Species List, which sparked fierce pushback from some westerners, especially ranchers and drillers. After nearly five years of debate, the Interior Department released a compromise management plan to help local, state, and federal stakeholders accommodate differing land goals. Other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released a series of maps through the Google Earth Engine to help stakeholders visualize grouse habitat and inform their decisions.

Now, according to the Denver Post, Zinke is debating whether to shelve grouse plans and start from scratch, a move that prompted immediate criticism from several Western governors, including Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper:

“Secretary Zinke has made clear his commitment to working with, rather than against, local communities and being a good neighbor to private landowners,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a prepared statement. “The Interior Department is looking forward to working with state and local partners to ensure we are striking a true balance between both conservation and responsible multiple use of our public lands.”

Hickenlooper, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval went to Washington, D.C., recently and raised their concerns in a meeting with Zinke. Hickenlooper and Mead also sent Zinke letters dated April 19 and May 26 opposing proposed changes that would move “from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” they wrote.

“This is not the right decision,” they wrote.

Federal Bureau of Land Management officials have yet to implement to plans, which protect the sagebrush habitat grouse need to survive.

[…]

States helped lead efforts to develop voluntary protection plans to be administered by the BLM.

If this hard-fought compromise approach is changed, conservation groups probably will push again to list grouse as an endangered species, said John Swartout, senior adviser for Hickenlooper on natural resources issues. “There’s a high risk environment groups would sue. They would say the basis for the nonlisting decision has been removed.”

“Landowners want certainty for grazing. Oil and gas companies want certainty for making capital investments. How does creating chaos help anybody?” Swartout asked. “We want him to meet with us before he makes any decision. The Western governors have worked really hard. It wasn’t easy. We don’t want to see all that go to waste.”

In September 2015, Interior officials decided not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered, relying instead on the state-led voluntary plans to prevent extinction of the bird. That “not-warranted” decision marked a shift after federal officials in 2010 determined that grouse needed protection under the Endangered Species Act to survive onslaughts of agricultural, housing and industrial energy development.

The voluntary approach was hailed as a new teamwork approach to species conservation across large landscapes.

The “teamwork” approach has also drawn criticism from multiple quarters, according to the Post. Environmental advocacy groups like WildEarth Guardians have said the current BLM plans are insufficient. On the other side of the coin, Denver-based oil and gas advocacy group Western Energy Alliance have filed a lawsuit against the plan, saying it’s too restrictive of energy development in grouse habitat.

Conservation groups were unanimous in voicing support for habitat protection over state grouse populations numbers.

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