(CN) – The Department of Interior is poised to overhaul the management plans of sage grouse habitat in 10 different states, a move that figures to have dramatic implications for land-use decisions in the American West.
The sage grouse has been at the center of a protracted debate, as the bird with a characteristic mating dance that some see as a symbol of the West relies on abundant sagebrush habitat which has been encroached upon by residential and commercial development in recent years.
A decline in the species led many conservation groups to call for its listing under the Endangered Species Act, a move vehemently opposed by other groups that said the designation would severely constrain land-use opportunities on vast swaths of the American West.
In an attempt to balance the wants and perspectives of environmentalists, hunters, developers and natural resource extraction industry representatives, the Obama administration struck a grand bargain in 2015, keeping the species off the endangered list while forcing most of the states that fall within the Great Basin to formulate and adhere to habitat management plans.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will now seek to undo those blueprints, a move that could lead to more mining, grazing, oil and gas drilling and other commercial activities in the bird’s habitat.
The move is unsurprising since Zinke ordered a review of the grouse habitat management plans in June.
“While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor,” Zinke said at the time.
Environmental organizations swiftly condemned the news on Thursday, saying Zinke’s decision to upend a hard-won compromise was unnecessary given the possibility it would dramatically harm an iconic species but also foist responsibility on states who have expressed satisfaction with the current plans.
“(The habitat management) plans were the result of years of hard work between a broad collaboration of stakeholders, including the federal government, ranchers, governors, conservationists, local officials and industry leaders,” said Mark Tercek, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, in a statement released Thursday. “Just as puzzling, this action would contradict the recommendations in the Department of the Interior’s Sage Grouse Review Team Report from August, which acknowledged that most of the affected states want to retain the existing BLM plans.”
Indeed, several western governors – including Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the leaders of Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Nevada – sent a letter to Zinke in June expressing concern about the review and demanding to be involved in the process.
Mead sent letters further saying that any shortcomings in the plans cemented in 2015 were minor.
It was a sentiment echoed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval as recently as August, when his spokeswoman expressed dismay that Zinke may introduce federal targets on bird population rather than the state-by-state process currently in place.
“Gov. Sandoval does not agree with managing the bird by population objectives as defined by the secretary,” Sandoval’s spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said in August. “He continues to believe that habitat must be managed properly in order to increase numbers and conserve habitat.”
Sandoval, a Republican popular in his home state, has often expressed dismay at the policies of the Trump administration, from health care to some of the land-use decisions coming out of the Department of Interior.
The sage grouse, with their characteristic patterned feathers, look like plump chickens but strut like peacocks in an odd mating dance that has endeared them to residents of the American West.
The birds can be found throughout the Great Basin, which roughly spans from Salt Lake City in the east to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range straddling the Nevada-California border.
They are found in the southern stretches of Nevada and Utah north into Montana, Washington state, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
Federal officials estimate the population of sage grouse has declined by about 30 percent since 1985, largely due to habitat loss. While human-caused development and commercial activities are partially responsible, wildfires and the incursion of invasive species such as cheatgrass have also abetted the decline.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the population decline warranted a listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, but ultimately declined because of higher priority species at the time.
The listing served as an alarm to many Western states who believed the listing of the bird due to habitat loss would end natural resource extraction industries in the same way the listing of the spotted owl gutted the timber industries in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s.
In 2014, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert estimated the state could lose $41 billion in potential revenue from oil and gas extraction alone should the bird be listed as endangered.
This is why many governors welcomed the compromise effected by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in 2015, and why many worry that reopening the process could not only undo the compromise in the short term but also establish a precedent whereby the species could eventually be listed under different administrations with different land-management priorities.
The specifics of Zinke’s recommendations are not yet available.