Flamboyant field bird gets another look from Trump officials, with huge implications

Protections of the greater sage grouse are in the crosshairs of many conservatives.  (Bob Wick / BLM)
Protections of the greater sage grouse are in the crosshairs of many conservatives. (Bob Wick / BLM)
Protections of the greater sage grouse are in the crosshairs of many conservatives. (Bob Wick/BLM)

By Matthew Daly, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday he is ordering a review of federal efforts to conserve the imperiled sage grouse to ensure that officials in 11 Western states where the bird lives are fully consulted.

While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect the ground-dwelling bird, “we also have a responsibility to be a good neighbor and a good partner,” Zinke said.

Zinke made the comments Wednesday as he announced a 60-day review of a sweeping 2015 conservation plan put in place by the Obama administration. The plan set land-use policies across the popular game bird’s 11-state range that were intended to keep it off the endangered species list.

The plan was backed by more than $750 million in commitments from the government and outside groups to conserve land and restore the bird’s range, which extends from California to the Dakotas.

Even so, the plan drew criticism from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Environmental groups complained it was riddled with loopholes and would not do enough to protect the bird from extinction, while mining companies, ranchers and officials in Utah, Idaho and Nevada argued that the Obama administration’s actions would impede oil and gas drilling and other economic development.

The ground-dwelling sage grouse, known for its elaborate mating ritual, range across a 257,000-square-mile region spanning 11 states.

A map shows the current and historic habitat of the greater sage-grouse.
A map shows the current and historic habitat of the greater sage-grouse. For more on the debate, refer to this Denverite explainer.

The grouse population once was estimated at 16 million birds across North America. It’s lost roughly half its habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states. There are now an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse.

Zinke said in a conference call with reporters that “state agencies are really at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations,” and the government needs to make sure state voices are being heard.

In particular, Zinke said he has received complaints from several Western governors that the Obama administration ignored or minimized their concerns as the plan was developed. Republican governors in Idaho, Utah and Nevada all would prefer that the plan give them more flexibility and rely less on habitat preservation “and more on numbers” of birds in a particular state, Zinke said.

“That’s exactly what this secretarial order does — it provides more flexibility than the one-size-fits-all solution” ordered by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Zinke said.

On other side, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming told Zinke they opposed any changes that would move “from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states.”

“This is not the right decision,” they wrote in a May 26 letter. Hickenlooper and Mead co-chair a federal-state sage grouse task force that worked to develop the 2015 plan.

Zinke’s order calls for officials to evaluate both the federal sage grouse plan and state plans and programs to ensure they are complementary. A report is due in early August.

Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society called Zinke’s order “disruptive” and said “it undermines carefully balanced and negotiated plans against the advice of the stakeholders involved. The plans do not need to be revised — they need to be supported and implemented in good faith by Interior.”

Jim Lyons, a former Obama administration official who helped develop the 2015 plan, called the review “a thinly-veiled and unnecessary attempt to open up important habitat to oil and gas drilling, jeopardizing the important balance and flexibility offered in the existing plans.”