Energy & Environment

Trump administration to overhaul sage grouse conservation strategy

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The Trump administration is changing the way it protects the greater sage grouse in an effort to provide states more flexibility in how they deal with the imperiled bird.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke publicly released a 53-page report Monday from an internal review committee and ordered his department to implement numerous recommendations from the report.

The strategy answers longstanding complaints from the oil and natural gas industries, ranchers and others, as well as some Republican state officials in the West, who said the Obama administration’s conservation strategy was too restrictive and costly.

{mosads}But conservation groups and Democrats immediately slammed the Monday recommendations, saying they would spell doom for the unique, chicken-sized bird that lives in the threatened sagebrush ecosystem.

The 2015 plan set new management standards for federally owned land in the bird’s 11-state range and sought to coordinate with states on other policies.

It was seen at the time as a way to avoid listing the sage grouse as threatened or endangered, a more blunt instrument that would have been far more restrictive.

In a letter to Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt Monday, Zinke ordered the implementation of nine broad recommendations, including re-evaluating habitat protections, allowing states to set population objectives, providing more flexibility in management decisions, clarifying standards for waivers to habitat protections and changing the policy on oil leasing in affected areas.

“I am particularly interested in assisting the states in setting sage-grouse population objectives to improve management of the species,” Zinke wrote. “I also believe we should examine a program to enhance scientific research.”

Population standards were a top request of opponents of President Barack Obama’s policy, but conservationists criticized the idea as a poor measure of recovery.

The internal task force said population standards can be good, but they shouldn’t be relied on too heavily.

“The best method for determining [sage grouse] viability will be to assess a combination of habitat availability and populations, which are inseparable,” it wrote.

Green groups sharply criticized Zinke’s new plan.

“The recommendations are a sideways attempt to abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development and in favor of discredited, narrow tools like captive breeding and population targets,” Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at the Wilderness Society. “Gutting the structure of these plans puts the entire landscape at risk.”

“When you hear the same message from western governors, ranchers, your own wildlife biologists and land managers — and you still ignore it, that’s a problem,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress and a former Obama administration Interior official.

“These recommendations confirm that Zinke is on a path to derail years of collaborative work, putting an entire landscape — and the economy that relies on it — at risk.”

The recommendations stem from a June secretarial order Zinke wrote seeking a full review of sage grouse policies.

Tags Barack Obama Interior Department Ryan Zinke sage grouse

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