Utah Congressman Criticizes Federal Sage Grouse Protection

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By Tripp Baltz

Sept. 30 — New federal land-use plan amendments designed to protect the greater sage grouse are a de facto listing under the Endangered Species Act, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said during a Sept. 30 hearing on state authority in resource management and energy development.

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service plans approved recently and announced in lieu of designating the chicken-sized, ground-dwelling bird as “endangered” or “threatened” imperil the economies of the 11 western states where the grouse are found, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said.

Testifying at the hearing were the governors of four western states—Montana, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. In addition to the greater sage grouse and the Endangered Species Act, the governors and committee members discussed issues of natural resources extraction, wildfires, water management, economic development and other areas where federal and state policy priorities intersect and sometimes collide.

The approval of the federal sage grouse conservation plans is “an effort that completely trumps state initiatives, which was the original purpose and the original goal” of the act, Bishop said. “It adds more power to the federal government to tell states what to do.”

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) agreed, saying his state spent $3 million developing a state sage grouse conservation plan, which is “now down the tubes.”

`Piled On'

“Now there are 15 different amendments and rules” in the land-use plans for Utah “that make it very difficult in my state for farming, for ranching, for commercial use, for energy extraction—in a part of the state with a tough economy,” he said. “They have just piled on and made it more difficult to conserve the bird.”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), while acknowledging the opposition to the plans by Utah and Idaho, said he supports the approach the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking to conserve the bird. Mead joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Denver Sept. 22 for the announcement that the BLM and the Forest Service were moving forward with 98 land-use plan amendments (18 TEALERT 7, 9/25/15)(46 ER 2852, 9/25/15)(See previous story, 09/23/15)(184 DEN A-15, 9/23/15)(183 ECR, 9/22/15).

“We viewed it as good news,” Mead told the committee. “For Wyoming, a listing would have been catastrophic. We have land-use plans now, so this is not the end of the process. We need to make sure the federal government is on the road we feel they've agreed to. But had the bird been listed, 80 percent of the coal lands in our state would have been taken off line. We have a long ways to go, but it's better to have it not listed than listed.”

Forest Management

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) told committee members that federal forest management in his state is “in tough shape.”

“Our fire seasons are longer, hotter and more expensive,” he said. The Forest Service spends more than half its budget on firefighting and other fire-related expenses, he said. “Because of the costs of fighting fires, the agency has less money to spend on the very activities that would help reduce fire risk.”

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) said that, with respect to Endangered Species Act listing decisions, states should be empowered to take a lead role working with landowners and key partners. He said South Dakota continues to be affected by listings that are unfounded and outdated.

“I have never seen a gray wolf in South Dakota,” he said. “And our state was never designated as an important area for the recovery of the gray wolf, yet after countless efforts to have South Dakota removed, we remain a state where wolves are listed as endangered.”

States also should take the lead in oil and gas regulation, according to Utah's Herbert, who slammed the BLM rule for hydraulic fracturing on public land (15 EHSDSN, 3/30/15)(46 ER 947, 3/27/15)(2015 WLPM, 3/26/15)(55 DER A-37, 3/23/15)(54 ECR, 3/20/15)(55 DEN A-14, 3/23/15).

The federal rule just adds another regulatory layer “that doesn't make it any better, just more expensive and time consuming,” he said. “Federal oversight ends up being counterproductive in too many instances.”

The hearing was held the same day a federal judge in Wyoming blocked the fracking rules, saying the BLM doesn't have the authority to oversee fracking.