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By Alan Kovski
The first suggested changes to federal protections for the greater sage grouse under the Trump administration may not be as broad-ranging as some of the bird’s advocates fear.
Instead, the proposed changes may simply give oil and gas companies, mining companies, and ranchers clarity on where and when leasing can occur, what exceptions to the rules can be allowed, and what mitigation measures may be needed, state officials told Bloomberg BNA.
The changes recommended by the Sage Grouse Review Team within the Interior Department were unveiled in a Aug. 7 report with an emphasis on flexibility—such as allowing exceptions for oil and gas drilling that doesn’t disturb nearby sage-grouse populations—and heightened respect for state policy decisions on sage grouse conservation.
The bird is found in 11 Western states, but is dwindling in numbers along with its sagebrush habitat. The birds live in elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and nest on the ground under sagebrush or grass patches.
Some of the changes will depend on what the states want, and some changes—such as captive breeding programs to augment the species’ population—may never happen. The report touched on many such considerations without insisting on any given policy option.
“I think it captured the range of alternatives that people felt we should take a look at,” said John Swartout, a senior policy adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D).
“The question now is, what happens next? That’s not clear yet,” Swartout told Bloomberg BNA.
“I don’t think there was anything in there that was alarming,” said Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, a state agency.
Budd said he didn’t see the Interior review team’s recommendations as a wholesale upending of the protections for the species. Asked if the changes could lead to the bird being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, he said, “No.”
Among those waiting to learn the implementation details are associations and companies that took the Obama administration’s 2015 sage grouse regulations to court, such as mining companies Western Exploration LLC, Quantum Minerals LLC, and Paragon Precious Metals LLC, and oil and gas industry groups Western Energy Alliance and North Dakota Petroleum Council.
Nevada and Wyoming local governments also went to court, worried about such basic activities as road construction in sage grouse habitat.
Much of what frustrated companies and local governments was uncertainty in the federal protections, which were issued in the form of 98 amended land-use plans through the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Much of that frustration can be corrected by having the government explain the details better, Budd told Bloomberg BNA.
“We were already working on that,” Swartout said of the policy clarifications that industry sought.
Swartout acknowledged the criticisms from environmental activists who said the report will lead to policies harming the species, but his own view was positive with cautionary notes.
Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) are the co-chairs of the State-Federal Sage Grouse Task Force, which provided advice to Interior’s policy review team and has worked on protections for the greater sage grouse since 2011. Swarthout and Budd represent Hickenlooper and Mead in the regular work of the task force.
Colorado and Wyoming did not seek big changes in the federal protections for the sage grouse, unlike Utah, Idaho, and Nevada—three states that are among the litigants challenging the 2015 sage grouse plans.
Even states that refrained from asking for big changes encountered some problems, Swartout said. He offered an example from his state’s policy of allowing exceptions to protections where local terrain allowed oil and gas drilling to occur without disturbing nearby populations of sage grouse, such as where the birds may occupy a plateau while the drilling is down in a neighboring ravine.
“We wanted the flexibility to do that. When these plans were rolled up together, we lost some of that flexibility,” Swartout said, referring to the Obama administration’s synthesis of the federal and state plans.
Flexibility can include finding more ways to improve cooperation between states, industry, landowners, and others, in Swartout’s view. “We look at this as an opportunity to strengthen our plan,” he said.
Conservation groups have criticized Interior’s policy review on sage grouse, and Swartout said they were right to speak up. If the changes are done poorly, the result could be something less protective of the species, he said.
Some states have shown an interest in using species population targets rather than so much emphasis on habitat protections, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a memo Aug. 7 saying he was particularly interested in assisting states in setting population objectives.
Wyoming’s governor issued a statement expressing skepticism about such a strategy. “I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding,” Mead said.
The Interior report was cautious on the subject, saying it would be best to assess “a combination of habitat availability and populations, which are inseparable.”
States do not have population monitoring that they are confident will do the job, and such monitoring would be expensive, cautioned San Stiver, sage grouse coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Stiver told Bloomberg BNA that Zinke may find that what sounded like a good idea in some cases is not. Stiver avoided singling out a particular example, but the Interior report almost did so itself in its skeptical summary of captive breeding.
Captive breeding of sage grouse “has not yet proven effective” and would siphon funds away from other priority efforts, the report said. It recommended only more study of the strategy.
The states have various approaches to managing wildlife. The one thing that unites them is a preference for state rather than federal management.
“We’re in very firm agreement that that’s where the management should be,” Budd said.
A federal role is unavoidable given the vast amount of federal lands in the West under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management in Interior, or the Forest Service in the Agriculture Department. The Obama administration and others also have noted that protection of the sagebrush habitat can help keep many species, not just sage grouse, from dwindling.
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Interior Department Sage Grouse Review Team memo can be found at http://src.bna.com/rsG
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