Feds release sage grouse conservation plan

Feds release sage grouse conservation plan
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Federal officials announced a 10-state plan Thursday to protect the greater sage grouse, a bird whose potential endangered status has caused up a firestorm in the natural resources community. 

The plan will preserve the federally-owned sagebrush lands that serve as the sage grouse’s habitat across the western United States. It will protect the sage grouse by limiting new development on its lands — including, critically, new oil and natural gas drilling — and by working to improve its existing habitat and prevent forest fires there.

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“As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage-grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy," Interior Secretary 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 said in a statement. “Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West.”

Officials rolled out the plan in Wyoming, which has the most sage grouse in the United States and a state plan to protect the bird. The Interior Department has written specific plans for 10 states, all designed to preserve and improve the sage grouse’s habitat on federal lands within them.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering whether to list the sage grouse as an endangered species, which would require more thorough federal regulations for the lands on which it lives. Officials in the Interior Department and the states have said they want to take steps to avoid a listing, and Interior’s plan on Thursday is designed to do that. 

The plan includes limits on energy development on sage grouse lands, including potentially lucrative drilling sites for oil and gas companies. 

Interior said the plan will respect “valid, existing” energy development rights for both fossil fuel and renewable energy development, but the Bureau of Land Management will look to work with energy companies “to mitigate adverse impacts to sage-grouse by avoiding, minimizing and compensating for unavoidable impacts,” according to a plan fact sheet.

The department will prioritize future oil and gas drilling outside of the sage grouse’s habitat and will move wind and solar projects away from the area because they also threaten the bird.

Republicans have criticized the Endangered Species Act as a burden on energy development in the west, and a pending decision on the sage grouse's status under the law has become a symbol for that criticism. Lawmakers have committed to reforming the law this year to give more deference to land-users like oil drillers, farmers and ranchers.

“This is just flat out wrong,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said of the plan. “If the Administration really cares about the bird they will adopt the state plans as they originally said they would. The state plans work. This proposal is only about controlling land, not saving the bird.”

Dan Naatz, the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s senior vice president of government relations, said that, "these plans, with their significant new limitations on land use, appear to fly in the face of the meaningful conservation efforts already underway within the range states to protect this important species."

“Interior must find a balance between thoughtful conservation and critical energy and economic development, but these plans appear to be wanting on both fronts," he said.

Jewell looked to preempt concerns over the plan Thursday, saying 90 percent of the land with oil potential near sage grouse territory is still available for development.

“The vast majority of the conventional and renewable energy resources that exist in these landscapes that we have in the plan will be available for development,” she said at an event in Wyoming. “So let’s focus on the 90 percent that are available, not the 10 percent that are more complicated by their location with the habitat.”

Conservation groups praised the effort Thursday as a good federal land management plan for western states. 

“The greater sage-grouse conservation plan is a huge step in the right direction that holds out the promise to save not only this beautiful bird but also hundreds of other species, while protecting some of America’s most precious and scenic lands,” National Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh said in statement. 

"This is about a lot more than the land the grouse (and the mule deer and the pronghorn antelope) call home,” said Nada Culver, senior director for Agency Policy at The Wilderness Society. “This is about our western way of life, our ability to maintain a healthy environment for all wildlife to flourish, and the future of public lands treasured by all Americans.

Before Thursday, a handful of states had already introduced plans to protect the sage grouse, mainly through “habitat exchanges” that allow land owners to preserve the bird’s habitat on their land in exchange for development elsewhere. Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada currently have habitat exchange programs, and the federal plan will recognize those programs as acceptable preservation efforts. 

“This is a historic commitment to wildlife conservation on public lands,” said Eric Holst, senior director of working lands at the Environmental Defense Fund. “By requiring mitigation on millions of acres of vital sagebrush habitat, these agencies are unlocking the vast untapped conservation potential of America’s working lands.”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), appearing with Jewell, said the plan should serve a model for avoiding future endangered species act listings. 

“What we are going to do is not just about the sage grouse or the habitat of the sage grouse,” he said. “We have found the skeleton key that opens the door for a better path on how to deal with endangered species.”

—This post was updated at 3:25 p.m.