The Trump administration today announced it is forging ahead with plans to give oil and gas companies expanded access to drill in breeding and nesting areas for Greater Sage-Grouse on federal land, a move that critics say ignores the bird’s need for large tracts of unbroken habitat and tosses aside a hard-won compromise to keep it from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Among other changes affecting Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property in seven states, the new management plans would reduce designated “sagebrush focal areas”—habitat considered most essential for the long-term health of sage-grouse populations, and currently protected by the tightest restrictions on development—by more than 80 percent, from 10.7 million acres to 1.8 million.
When the Interior Department released draft versions of the new plans in May, conservation groups and many members of the public pushed back, saying they would allow reckless development in areas that are crucial to recover the bird’s dwindling population. Some 40,000 Americans, including about 15,000 Audubon members and supporters, submitted public comments opposing such provisions and urging the department to maintain a series of 2015 plans that were a landmark compromise among industry, environmentalists, and others.
But the final proposals issued today are little changed from those drafts and threaten to seriously degrade prime sagebrush habitat, says Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “It’s a sweetheart deal for oil and gas,” he says.
In a press release announcing the new plans, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said they were an attempt “to better align BLM resource management plans with state plans for conserving sage-grouse populations, strike a regulatory balance and build greater trust among neighboring interests in Western communities.”
Members of the public have a 30-day window to weigh in on the plans before they’re made final early next year, and governors of sage-grouse states get 60 days to review them for consistency with state and local policies. (The U.S. Forest Service is also finalizing plans for the land it manages, with a comment period ending January 3.)
Greater Sage-Grouse once numbered in the millions across 13 states and three Canadian provinces. They’re key players in a sagebrush ecosystem that supports 350 other plant and animal species, including mule deer, pronghorn, kit fox, and birds like Sagebrush Sparrow Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, and Sage Thrasher. But development, agriculture, and, more recently, invasive cheatgrass have eaten up half the sagebrush habitat the chunky, ground-dwelling birds rely on for food and shelter. As a result, the number of breeding males plunged by 56 percent between 2007 and 2013, and the government estimates that between 200,000 and 500,000 Greater Sage-Grouse remain, spread over 11 states and two provinces.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considered listing the birds under the Endangered Species Act. Energy companies, ranchers, and private landowners, wary of the restrictions on development that a listing would bring, spent years working with conservationists, states, and federal agencies to create management plans that allowed continued development but steered it away from core areas where sage-grouse mate, nest, and overwinter. Those plans—the result of the single largest planning effort the BLM has undertaken—were officially adopted in 2015.
Based on the safeguards for sage-grouse in those earlier management blueprints, FWS determined that the birds didn’t need protection under the Endangered Species Act. But last year, in keeping with his ongoing campaign to open more federal land to energy development, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he was revisiting those plans. That led to today’s amended versions, which undermine that certainty and deepen concerns about the stability of sage-grouse populations.
Among other pro-industry provisions, the plans would remove a requirement that any sagebrush habitat damaged by development be offset with restoration projects elsewhere, instead leaving it to states to enforce that mandate. In Utah and parts of Wyoming, they would no longer prioritize areas outside sage-grouse habitat for oil and gas development. And, Rutledge says, they would trade a landscape approach to protection—one that reflects the bird’s need for sweeping, unfragmented habitat—for a piecemeal approach that only considers the local footprint of development.
In a June letter to Zinke, scientists with expertise on sagebrush ecosystems cautioned that the draft plans’ shift away from landscape-scale protection was risky. “Failure to take into account large-scale dynamics when managing sage-grouse will likely lead to an overall loss of habitat quantity and quality resulting in population declines,” they wrote.
The energy industry welcomed the news. Today’s amendments “are a big improvement on the 2015 plans,” according to the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 300 oil and gas companies. “Unlike with the previous plans, companies that enact rigorous protections for the species will be able to move forward with development,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the group’s president, in a statement to Audubon magazine.
Still, the National Audubon Society was not alone in criticizing today’s announcement. “In announcing these changes, Secretary Zinke is breaking a compromise deal made just three years ago by Westerners of all stripes, who set aside their differences to conserve key sage-grouse habitat and provide certainty for communities and industry around the region,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, in a statement.
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, issued a more measured statement. “These new plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” he said.
That uncertainty could ultimately ensnare even those who stand to gain in the short term from Interior’s industry-friendly approach. When the Obama administration opted not to add Greater Sage-Grouse to the endangered list, “that decision was utterly dependent on these promises, these certainties delivered by the 2015 plans,” Rutledge says. With those assurances out the window, the next time sage-grouse numbers bottom out—they’re known for boom and bust population cycles—it could trigger a listing and heavier restrictions on land development, including oil and gas leases. It’s a possibility as bad for business as it is for birds.