American wildlife need responsible public land drilling to be more profitable than cutting corners

Sage-grouse bird Interior Department zinke

The Trump administration has now released its proposed sage-grouse plan alterations, and they take the already-inadequate 2015 plans and make them worse.

The Obama-era plans were presented as an alternative to listing the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act because the plans were supposed to alleviate major threats to the grouse’s habitat. But the Trump administration’s latest move to re-prioritize sage grouse habitats for leasing and drilling has darkened prospects for the highly-imperiled bird.

What makes this bird so special? The Washington Post recently noted the greater-sage grouse “are famous for fierce battles between males in an annual rite to mate with hens. It’s a theatrical show of machismo, chest thumping and razor-sharp clawing over a wide landscape that people across the world travel to watch.”

{mosads}Today, there are fewer than 500,000 sage-grouse — that once numbered 16 million across the Western United States.


Unfortunately, Congress has retained the 2014 CROminibus rider that blocked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from using federal funds to list the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. This rider was adopted at the time as a cynical backstop intended to limit the legal consequences for the sage-grouse plans’ insufficiencies, but has been extended every year since and in an ironic twist of fate the rider now is the key factor that allows Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to undermine the Obama-era sage-grouse plans with impunity.

The shortcomings of the original plans are many: Buffers around display and mating sites in Wyoming (home to the largest remaining sage-grouse population) are far too tiny to protect breeding and nesting grouse, Nevada priority habitats were reduced by more than half and those that survived are heavily fragmented, and several massive electrical transmission projects were given a free pass on compliance with grouse protections. Throughout, loopholes in the form of waivers, modifications, and exceptions baked into the plans to give the land managers the flexibility to ignore habitat protection commitments.

Before the ink was even dry on the 2015 sage grouse plans, industrial interest groups and state governments started filing lawsuits to eliminate even the meager protections that survived the planning process. In short order, every western state with a Republican governor (except Wyoming) sued to get rid of the plans. Some conservation groups (including my organization Western Watersheds Project) also filed suit because the plans didn’t protect the species in accordance with the scientific recommendations.

And then the Trump administration took office, with its “Energy Dominance” agenda. Officials moved swiftly to “review” the West-wide sage grouse plans, then to initiate their own planning process to alter them. Zinke’s 2017 recommendations for the revisions appear to be plagiarized directly from the lawsuits of the states and industries that were hoping to overturn the original plans. Seen in this light, the draft sage-grouse plans are a legal settlement with the opponents of sage-grouse conservation, by another means.

Since then, the Trump administration has been slowly gutting the key conservation provisions of the Obama plans, beginning to lease key sage-grouse habitats for drilling, more than 5 million acres of which the Obama administration had removed from earlier oil and gas auctions.

During the past week, two different lawsuits challenged the Trump administration’s decision to open up sage-grouse habitats to oil and gas leasing, despite the requirements in the current sage-grouse plans to prioritize oil and gas leasing and development outside of designated habitats.

Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the first sage-grouse lawsuit, which covers numerous oil and gas lease sales across five western states. Among the most striking examples was a central Utah auction that went forward despite the local ‘Sheeprocks’ sage-grouse population having plummeted to levels that tripped “hard triggers” which are supposed to invoke new and much stronger sage grouse protections. Instead, the Bureau of Land Management elected to release some of these habitats for oil and gas drilling.

The second lawsuit was filed by National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, and others, and also focuses on the same failure to prioritize leasing on lands not designated for sage-grouse conservation. These lawsuits have the potential to prevent the Trump administration from jumping the gun on dismantling sage -grouse protections before they have completed the legally-mandated planning process. 

Prior to either of these two lawsuits, the Western Organization of Resource Councils won a lawsuit in March of 2018, with the judge ruling, “BLM must supplement the Miles City FEIS and Buffalo FEIS with an analysis of the environmental consequences of downstream combustion of coal, oil, and gas open to development under each RMP.”

As a result of this legal victory, the BLM deferred all 223 oil and gas leases nominated in the Miles City and Buffalo Field Offices for the upcoming June lease auction, a move that protects a vast acreage of sage-grouse habitat from future drilling, even though the words “sage-grouse” were never mentioned in the lawsuit that triggered the reprieve for its habitat. 

The new proposed revisions released this week effectively widen and reinforce the loopholes that were already in the plans, shoring up industry access to public lands resources, sage-grouse be damned. These further changes illustrate the extent to which special interests, in the form of corporations and lobbyists ties to industries that have a profit motive in exploiting our public lands, will go to undermine and reverse well-intentioned conservation efforts.

No amount of collaboration between environmentalists and industry will ever generate an environmentally responsible solution that gives the sage grouse — and the hundreds of other species of plans and wildlife that inhabit the Sagebrush Sea — the protection they need to survive and thrive. Instead, decisive action is needed to re-set the regulatory bar high enough to render environmentally responsible commercial uses of public lands more profitable than cutting corners, degrading the land, and driving wildlife to extinction. Until that time, the long decline of the sage-grouse will continue. 

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project, the conservation group that forced sage-grouse conservation into the national spotlight with a lawsuit that overturned the denial of Endangered Species Act protections during the Bush administration.

Tags Conservation Erik Molvar oil drilling Ryan Zinke sage grouse
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