Trump officials to reconsider sage grouse protection policies

Trump officials to reconsider sage grouse protection policies
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The Trump administration is convening a task force to consider changes to the Obama administration’s policies to protect an imperiled bird native to the American West.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday that the team’s goals are to evaluate whether the federal government’s policies related to the greater sage grouse are compatible with state policies, whether they’re beneficial for local economies and jobs and how they impact production of domestic energy.

Conservationists warned that the internal policy review in the Interior Department threatens the delicate balancing act the Obama administration and western states executed in 2015 to avoid listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, an option that critics say is blunt and inflexible.

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Zinke said he wants to restore trust in the process, listen to states and businesses and improve consistency among Interior agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in enforcing the policies.

“There’s a lot of mistrust and anger out there about how the federal government is managing the lands and that we’re not listening to the states and the local communities,” he told reporters.

“They’ve indicated that they do not believe that they were heard on the issue of sage grouse … as well as some of the innovative ideas they felt were not taken into consideration.”

The task force creation is the latest step in a years-long saga over the unique, chicken-sized bird, whose population has dropped from millions decades ago to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 today, due largely to the loss of its habitat.

Since the sage grouse’s habitat is so large and in areas important to oil and natural gas drilling and agriculture, it became a lightning rod in the debate over the Endangered Species Act and how to balance competing interests like conservation and energy production, which is harmful to the bird.

Under the current policies, the BLM and the Forest Service have amended dozens of land-use plans for federal land across the sage grouse’s habitat to help the bird, like removing invasive plants and working to prevent wildfires.

They are meant to be complementary with conservation measures in the states.

While the Obama administration tried to balance interests, the oil and gas industry, congressional Republicans and some western states, among other interests, think the policies go too far.

Zinke said a major focus of the review is to see if there are other actions that could help the sage grouse while being more flexible for states and businesses like oil and gas.

That includes focusing on population numbers over habitat restoration, using drones to count populations and using captive breeding to increase numbers.

“I’d like to give us more tools to make sure at the end of the day that the sage grouse is not listed, and we have healthy populations,” he said.

“The complaints have been that the federal government is dictating terms too much,” Zinke continued, summarizing what western governors have told him. “I don’t think anything is either off or on the table on approaches.”

Conservationists immediately slammed Zinke’s action as a threat to the sage grouse.

“The plans do not need to be revised, they need to be supported and implemented in good faith by the Department of the Interior,” Nada Culver, senior director for agency policy at The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

“The plans were structured to include flexibility and an ongoing collaboration with the states that are home to the grouse, so any further changes must take into account active partnership with western states, as well as input from the other stakeholders who have put so much time and effort into creating these plans,” she said.

“The review appears to be 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,” said Jim Lyons, a senior fellow at the left-wing Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official.