Federal sage grouse plans abandon scientific integrity
© WildEarth Guardians

Last week, Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves driverless car bill | House bill to change joint-employer rule advances | Treasury to withdraw proposed estate tax rule | Feds delaying Obama methane leak rule Overnight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick GOP chairman probes Zinke’s charter plane use MORE announced new federal sage grouse plans as a justification to withhold Endangered Species Act protections for this charismatic bird. But the plans unveiled this September abandon scientific integrity. Instead, a collection of special political favors for the oil and gas industry and other industries actually block sage grouse habitat protections from addressing the most important threats — and most powerful industries — in each state.

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Effectiveness isn't based on whom you can put on a podium to offer up empty platitudes and hollow rhetoric. Plans based on measures weak enough to allow sage grouse to be eliminated from their most important habitats can only be judged as ineffective, regardless of which spokespeople you can get to endorse them.

In Wyoming, oil and gas drilling causes the most intense and widespread habitat destruction and has been cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the biggest threat to sage grouse. Yet protections from drilling are weakest in Wyoming. For example, sage grouse leks (dancing and breeding sites) only get 0.6-mile buffers from industrial development in Wyoming, far less than the 3.1-mile minimum buffers identified by federal scientists (and applied in all other states). Inadequate protections against the main threat for the 40 percent of sage grouse that live in Wyoming? That's an important detail.

Starting in 2008, federal agencies pulled more than 9.8 million acres of oil and gas leases range-wide from quarterly lease auctions based on conflicts with sage grouse conservation. In 2011, federal and state sage grouse experts issued a final report that recommended closing "priority habitats" entirely to future oil and gas leasing. Defying their own scientists, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service opened up all priority habitats to future fossil fuel leasing under varying terms and conditions, ranging from "No Surface Occupancy" subject to exceptions, to allowing future leasing under token protections in Wyoming.

In addition to reversing its leasing policy in priority habitats, the Interior Department now will resume approving industrial projects that have been on hold for years. These projects encompass 27,209 oil and gas wells in Wyoming alone. The completion of new federal sage grouse plans therefore marks a new beginning for industrial activity inside the most sensitive sage grouse habitats, under inadequate habitat protections.

As with all other states, the only major transmission projects likely to be built in Wyoming over the life of the new plans — the TransWest Express, Gateway West and Gateway South projects — can cut right across the most sensitive sage grouse habitats without complying with the plans' new sage grouse protections.

In northeastern Wyoming, a collaborative group drew the core area boundaries to exclude important habitats the coalbed methane industry wanted for drilling. As a result, only 28 percent of sage grouse in northeastern Wyoming live inside core areas today. A recent scientific study rated this region as having one of the highest probabilities of sage grouse extinction: A 98.7 percent chance of dropping into the extinction vortex within the next 30 years.

The conservation inconsistencies showcased in Wyoming crop up in other states as well. Nevada exempts geothermal projects from sage grouse protections, while Oregon has weaker protections against wind farms in key areas. In Nevada, almost half of the "priority areas for conservation" deemed "essential for sage grouse conservation" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were denied priority habitat status under the new federal plans.

There's no scientific reason for these huge disparities in habitat protections between states; backroom politics is the only explanation.

And what did the Interior Department get for all this effort to woo Western governors and the extractive industries they represent? A public relations event that will soon be fortgotten. Wyoming's Gov. Matt Mead (R) shared the podium with Jewell in a carefully choreographed show of unity, but Wyoming's congressional delegation immediately blasted the federal plans as "nothing more than a Washington land grab." Last week, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) filed a lawsuit against the federal sage grouse plans. So much for collaboration.

In the end, it doesn't matter who thinks that the sage grouse plans are a fair and balanced compromise. If they don’t save the sage grouse, they're a failure.

The Interior Department should have stuck with the science and created an honest and forthright conservation strategy.

The Clinton administration protected more than 50 million acres of wild forests under the Roadless Rule, a proud conservation legacy without special loopholes for individual states. The George W. Bush administration turned the drilling rigs loose to plunder Western public lands, and more than 80,000 wells were drilled and millions of acres of public lands were industrialized, a huge giveaway to the fossil fuels industry that spans the entire West.

The Obama administration's public lands legacy may well be attempting the largest conservation effort by acreage, then botching it by ignoring their own scientists. Today there are more federal regulations, but they're ineffectual, and sage grouse still don't have the protection they need to survive.

Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.