Federal sage-grouse plan will restrict economic development in the West

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would not list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a decision that stands in line with what many have known for months: the current conservation of the greater sage-grouse is working and a federal listing is the wrong decision for the grouse. Yet while this non-warranted decision of the Interior Department is a welcome one, what few are discussing is the Department’s federal land use plans in the grouse’s 11-state habitat. These plans may be better than a federal listing, but they still stand to have a severe economic impact on private land use and energy development across the American West. 

For some background, earlier this summer federal officials proposed land use plans for the greater sage-grouse and its habitat on public lands in the West, including oil and gas states like Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Montana. On Tuesday, Interior announced its final plans governing land use activities on millions of acres of federally managed sagebrush habitat, including extraordinary limitations in the form of new surface disturbance caps on development, millions of acres off limits to any surface disturbance, and significant buffers around the bird’s habitat.

{mosads}Unfortunately, regardless of the motivation behind these efforts, the federal government’s plans would place new restrictions on industries that make up the backbone of the western economy. These plans largely ignore the great strides made by state regulators, local officials, ranchers, and energy developers alike to protect the sage-grouse and its habitat.

Local stakeholders and state officials best understand their own lands and have carefully constructed a thoughtful approach, balancing both conservation and critical energy and economic development. These agencies are working each day with local stakeholders, from ranchers to energy developers, to protect the environment and ecosystems we all care about and the land they understand and know. Some energy operators have even joined forces with these state agencies and federal partners to improve greater sage-grouse habitats and abide by existing state-based conservation plans, such as Wyoming’s Sage-Grouse Core Area Program and Colorado’s Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan.

Meanwhile, America’s energy industry has also taken steps to reduce surface impacts and limit disturbances to the environment and species alike. For example, independent producers have adapted equipment to limit visual disturbances and mirror the surrounding environment on site, and the increased use of horizontal drilling enables companies to access oil and natural gas miles away and in various directions from the well pad, greatly diminishing the number of wells required to produce the same amount of energy. As Interior Secretary Sally Jewell herself stated, “By using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land.” Once operations are complete, oil and gas producers then execute rigorous reclamation plans to return the well pad area to its original state.

These are just some of the many voluntary ways in which states and energy producers alike are stepping up to protect the greater sage-grouse. After all, the men and women of these businesses and state agencies live and recreate in the same area where they work, and the protection of their surroundings are critical to their way of life.

The good news is that local and state conservation efforts are working. According to survey results released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the population of the sage-grouse has grown by nearly two-thirds since 2013. This is why, time and again, leaders from across the West have advocated for local and state-based conservation, instead of a federal plan, to protect the greater sage-grouse. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) stated in May 2015, “We firmly believe that state-led efforts are the most effective way to protect and conserve the greater sage-grouse and its habitat.” Wyoming Governor Matt Mead (R), leader of the state with the largest greater sage-grouse population, also stated in July that federal plans “will have long-term and significant impact on energy, tourism, recreation and agriculture industries, as well as cultural resources, water resources and open space.”

Efforts are underway by private landowners and all levels of government to ensure these state and local conservation strategies to protect the sage-grouse and its habitat are not cast aside in favor of the federal government’s top-down land use plans. The states and their local partners have long-shown it is possible to balance conservation and economic development – and we see it working for the greater sage-grouse and so does Interior. Yet while this non-warranted decision is a step in the right direction for the grouse, and recognizes the immense efforts already underway, these federal land use plans and their impact on energy development must still be addressed. IPAA will continue to advocate on behalf of effective local and state-based conservation of this iconic species, while providing affordable energy and economic development that local communities all rely upon.

Russell is the president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the leading, national upstream trade association representing oil and natural gas producers that drill 95 percent of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells. For more information, visit www.ipaa.org and follow @IPAAaccess on Twitter.

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