WASHINGTON – The Interior Department said Thursday it is withdrawing protections for 10 million acres of federal lands used by the threatened sage grouse to open it up for energy development.
The plan would allow mining and other development in areas where it now is prohibited in six Western states: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, said a recent analysis showed that mining or grazing would not pose a significant threat to the sage grouse, a ground-dwelling, chicken-like bird that roams across vast areas of the West.
The proposal would affect less than one-tenth of 1 percent of sage grouse-occupied range across 11 states from California to the Dakotas, officials said.
The change comes as the Trump administration moves to reconsider an Obama-era plan to protect the sage grouse, a quirky bird with long, pointed tail feathers and known for the male’s elaborate courtship display in which air sacs in the neck are inflated to make a popping sound.
Millions of sage grouse once roamed the West but development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires has reduced the bird’s population to fewer than 500,000.
A proposal by the Obama administration to protect 10 million acres from development “to prevent 10,000 from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” said acting BLM Director Mike Nedd.
Nedd and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pledged to work closely with states to protect the health of the sage brush-dominated lands. Interior said Thursday it is seeking comment on plans to revise sage grouse conservation plans across the bird’s range.
“We can be successful in conserving greater sage grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth,” Nedd said, adding that officials intend to “protect important habitat while also being a good neighbor to states and local communities.”
Environmental groups said Interior was jeopardizing the bird’s habitat – and its survival.
“The Interior Department is traversing down a dangerous path that could put this vital habitat at risk,” said Nada Culver, a policy expert at the Wilderness Society.
Because of the importance of its sagebrush habitat, the sage grouse helps determines the health of an entire ecosystem, including the golden eagle, elk, pronghorn and mule deer, Culver said. A 2015 plan imposed by the Obama administration has reduced the threat of extinction by protecting the most important habitat while ensuring other activities continue on public lands, she said.
The 2015 plan was hashed out under President Barack Obama as a way to keep the bird off the endangered species list following a decadeslong population decline caused by disease and pressure on habitat from energy development, grazing and wildfires.
Zinke order a review of the Obama plan this summer, saying he wanted to give Western states greater flexibility to allow mining, logging and other economic development where it now is prohibited. Zinke insisted that the federal government and the states can work together to protect the sage grouse and its habitat while not slowing economic growth and job creation.
Mining companies, ranchers and governors in some Western states – especially Utah, Idaho and Nevada – said the 2015 plan would impede oil and gas drilling and other economic activity. Republican governors in those states urged that conservation efforts focus on bird populations in a state rather than on habitat management, which frequently results in land-use restrictions.
On the other side, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming have said they oppose any changes to the habitat-management model.
John Swartout, a senior adviser to Hickenlooper, said changes to the conservation plan – developed over years with local and state involvement – could lead to a future Endangered Species Act listing for the sage grouse.
“We didn’t work this hard to throw it all away and get a listing” on the Endangered Species Act, Swartout told The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Colo.
Comments on the plan will be accepted through late November.
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