US Eases Land Restrictions Meant to Protect Sage Grouse

Male sage grouses are seen fighting for the attention of females southwest of Rawlins, Wyo., on May 9, 2008. (Jerret Raffety/The Rawlins Daily Times via AP, File)

(CN) – The Trump administration’s final land-use plans for seven Western states ease restrictions on mining and drilling, which critics say will further encroach on the habitat of an iconic bird species already in decline.

The greater sage grouse, a bird endemic to a wide swath of the sagebrush country spanning much of the American West, has long been at the center of a fight between developers, livestock managers, mining enterprises and energy development companies on one side and environmentalists and wildlife advocates on the other.

On Friday, the Trump administration revamped a hard-won compromise forged by both sides during the Obama years and released new plans it says will give local governments and resource managers a greater say in how to balance species protections with economic development.

“The plans adopted today show that listening to and working with our neighbors at the state and local levels of government is the key to long-term conservation and to ensuring the viability of local communities across the West,” said acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a statement Friday.

Environmentalists say the new plans wiped out critical protections for the greater sage grouse, which could accelerate the decline in population and even lead to extinction.

“The new plans will allow sage grouse habitat needs to be overlooked and ignored whenever industry wants to site a new oil well, create a new road or build new fences,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “They undercut what few protections already exist and do nothing to conserve this iconic bird.”

The greater sage grouse, which once roamed the western sagebrush landscape by the millions, has seen a significant population decline: Scientists estimate only 200,000 to 500,000 birds remain.

The bird uses sagebrush-grassland or juniper sagebrush-grassland, which proliferates at lower elevations throughout roughly 300 million acres of the American West, as a vital feeding ground. Scientists say residential development, natural resource extraction and cattle grazing in the bird’s natural habitat has led to its precipitous population decline in recent decades.

Environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to list the bird as endangered. Advocates for the various economic interests dependent on the land said such a listing would cripple several industries, much like the timber industry in the West was hobbled after the northern spotted owl was listed as endangered due to loss of habitat.

Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell led a five-year effort culminating in a compromise that sought to provide protections for the sage grouse while stopping short of listing it as endangered – a deal all affected states and interested parties signed off on.

Within weeks of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, however, his administration said the deal would be revisited.

Initially, the Trump administration’s desire to revisit the compromise met skepticism from nearly all the governors of the affected states in the West, who collectively balked at undoing a fragile agreement that required years of effort.

But on Friday, a bipartisan coalition of western governors praised the newly released land-use plans.

Governors Kate Brown and Jared Polis, both Democrats from Oregon and Colorado, respectively, said the plans properly balance protections with the need for economic development in their states.

“Balancing sage grouse habitat protection and economic development requires mitigation of negative impacts,” Brown said. “This agreement is a critical step that marks a shift away from planning toward active conservation and landscape management to protect this iconic species.”

The four other governors to issue statements of approval Friday are Republicans. California Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to comment on the land-use plans, even though a large swath of the Golden State will be affected by the newly amended plans. California has repeatedly clashed with the Trump administration on a variety of issues.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the amended plans are a thinly disguised giveaway to the energy industry and will open 225,000 acres of formerly protected land in Colorado to oil and gas leasing.

The new state of play also eliminates a requirement that Utah prioritize oil and gas development outside of 4 million acres where the sage grouse is endemic, the center said, while eliminating or weakening requirements that pertain to 26.2 million acres of habitat in Wyoming which scientists have characterized as the bird’s last stronghold.

“This could drive the greater sage grouse to extinction and forever damage the American West,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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