Bureau of Land Management reverses conservation effort

Greater sage grouse perform mating rituals in this photo, taken at Walden, Colorado, in 2013.

A Trump administration initiative would loosen protections for the greater sage grouse, a Western bird species renowned for its elaborate mating dance, scrapping conservation plans that were developed on a bipartisan basis over a six year period in favor of deregulation recommended by the fossil fuel industry.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a review of current sage grouse management plans in June, saying he wanted to see improvement in the bird’s conservation while also taking into account “local economic growth and job creation.

The review task force came back with recommendations that would relax rules protecting sage grouse within mineral leasing areas.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management released six new instructional guidelines last month that tell the agency’s state and field offices how to implement significant changes to and essentially override guidance for implementing the sage-grouse conservation plans that were issued by the Obama administration.

The plans are the largest collaborative conservation effort in U.S. history, created over a six-year timeframe with the input and cooperation of multiple federal agencies, state and federal legislators from both sides of the aisle, conservationists, ranchers, recreationists, scientists and the energy industry.

The current administration has in a matter of six months rushed to dismantle the plans, leaving the stakeholders and the American public in the dark as much as the administration can possibly maneuver.

Environmental and conservation groups are lambasting the decision to revise the current sage grouse management plan, saying that it’s a sign that the Trump administration can’t say ‘no’ to mining and petroleum companies.

“Weakening these plans puts the grouse at grave risk of further population declines,” said Steve Holmer, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy.

“BLM’s new guidance essentially turns the intent of these plans upside down, removing direction that would protect habitat and instead emphasizing how to permit leasing and development, regardless of the importance of the habitat at risk,” said Nada Culver, a senior director at The Wilderness Society.

“And issuing guidance that will be in effect for three years while ostensibly seeking input on whether and how to revise the governing plans and policies reinforces the message that the concerns of the public, scientists and other stakeholders with weakening these plans will be disregarded,” said Culver.

New Jersey Democrat Lisa McCormick was more emphatic about the policy changes.

“The Interior Department is merely following orders from the oil and gas industry, which is hell bent on destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life, instead of working in the interest of America, its people or the future,” said McCormick. “This is another example of reckless profiteering and greed.”

“The rush to destroy these natural habitats is only slightly less disgusting than the Republican Party’s willingness to pollute America’s political process by putting money ahead of everything else,” said McCormick. “This is another reason we need to end the corrosive influence of money in politics.”

Greater sage grouse, which live across 11 Western states, have seen their populations decline from the millions to fewer than 500,000.

In 2010, their numbers dipped to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed that the bird warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act, but limited resources and other priorities precluded action to implement those protections.

As a result, a broad and unlikely coalition of biologists, ranchers, environmental groups, extractive industries, federal agencies and state and local governments worked feverishly to create a management plan for the bird that would preempt a listing.

Finalized in 2015, the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan was lauded as unprecedented and as one of the most complex and comprehensive conservation efforts in U.S. history.

Then-Interior Director Sally Jewell described it as a “truly historic moment – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West.” Given the efforts and an evaluation of the bird’s population status, the FWS decided to not list the greater sage grouse.

Overview of changes to BLM sage-grouse instruction memorandum on oil and gas leasing [PDF]

Developing the plans vs Dismantling the plans [PDF]

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