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Energy development will likely land one bird on the Endangered Species list

Energy development will likely land one bird on the Endangered Species list
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Biologists estimate there were once 16 million greater-sage grouse across the West. Now there are fewer than 500,000.

 

No one wants a species to wink out on their watch. And in the West, no one particularly wants a species to get in bad enough trouble that it is listed on the Endangered Species Act. The feds get involved. Making a living off the land becomes more difficult.

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That’s why hundreds of people from across the West worked together for years to come up with collaborative conservation plans to keep the bird from the brink and off the list.

Folks were rightly proud the day in 2016 that governors from the West came together for a ceremony to ink the deal with then-Secretary of the Interior Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Energy: Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone | UN report offers dire climate warning | Trump expected to lift ethanol restrictions Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone Blind focus on ‘energy dominance’ may cripple Endangered Species Act MORE.

So it was perplexing why the Department of Interior under Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInspector general: Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for his wife Overnight Energy: Inspector general finds Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for family | Interior says Trump appointee won't be new watchdog | EPA chief says agency taking climate report 'very seriously' Trump official won’t be new Interior watchdog, agency says MORE ran headlong so quickly into trying to upend those plans.

The agency said it would no longer prioritize drilling outside of sage grouse habitat — one of the core tenets of the plans. After all, the most practical way to have both responsible drilling and sage grouse conservation is to drill where the bird isn’t. But that did not fit In with the administration’s energy dominance agenda (their words, not mine).

The agency also took on the plans themselves, announcing it would review them.

Western governors from both parties spoke up, and their sentiments were summed up by Gov. Matt Mead  (R-Wyo.).

“Mineral companies need long-term predictability as they decide where to put capital. On top of that the bird needs a long-term plan,” the governor said. “We can’t have wholesale changes in wildlife management every four or eight years. I don’t think that is the best way to sustain populations or provide the necessary predictability to industry and business in our states.”

And then, through comment period after comment period, roughly 600,000 Americans asked the government to leave the plans alone, to honor the deal that was made. 

In an odd twist more than 100,000 comments from one comment period were lost — never received by the Bureau of Land Management. At the National Wildlife Federation, we noticed our members voices were being silenced, so we spoke up. We still had the comments, so we resent them, this time hand-delivered on a thumb drive. 

In the following round of public comment, the agency said this time it wasn’t going to rely on email comments, so concerned citizens had to go online to a website to make their concerns heard. Six or so confusing clicks through a maze of agency web pages could get dedicated commenters to the right place.

Still, thousands of people persisted.

Now we await the results of the Department of Interior’s assessment of the comments. The question is, did Interior heed those comments?

The message was pretty simple: the changes the agency proposes in each of the states, taken as a whole, add up to trouble for the bird. That trouble likely leads to a listing under the Endangered Species Act. No one wants that. If that’s where this whole tale lands, Zinke and the department will have no one to blame but themselves, but it’s the bird and Westerners who rely on the land it inhabits that will shoulder the burdens of that mistake.

We ask one more time, for good measure, for Interior not to make that mistake. There’s room for responsible energy development and the bird, exactly as the plans laid out.

Tracy Stone-Manning is the associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation.