The Bureau of Land Management’s new management plans for tens of millions of acres of greater sage-grouse habitat aim to give BLM and seven western states “flexibility” to address threats to the bird’s continued existence, BLM said in releasing the plans Thursday.

Reaction was predictably mixed, as energy companies applauded the withdrawal of nearly 11 million acres of land from “focal areas” where conservation of the bird would have been given a higher priority than oil and gas drilling. Environmental groups had a different response, saying BLM was prioritizing energy extraction over protection of the species, which avoided an endangered species listing after a multiyear process resulted in draft BLM and Forest Service plans released in September 2015.

The Forest Service is separately reviewing its own plans for sage-grouse habitat.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the department had “leaned forward” to address issues raised by the states with BLM lands in the bird’s habitat – Colorado, Idaho, Nevada/Northern California, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

“We will continue to be focused on meaningfully addressing the threats to the greater sage-grouse and making efforts to improve its habitat,” Bernhardt said.

Ethan Lane, head of the Public Lands Council, which represents the livestock industry, said PLC is still reviewing the individual plans and talking with its state affiliates, but “overall we’re pleased to see the agency take action to bring the plans in-line with individual state conservation efforts.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, however, said the new plans “do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats” as were proposed by the Obama Administration. “There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans,” TRCP said.

And the Center for Biological Diversity said the plans “would gut a key requirement that the agency do ‘more good than harm’ when authorizing projects in sage-grouse habitat. They also would curtail wildlife agencies’ involvement in decisions about whether oil and gas development should be allowed in sage-grouse habitat. Plans for several states also weaken requirements that the BLM prioritize fossil-fuel development outside the birds’ habitat.”

In late 2015, BLM had said it would be requiring mitigation “that provides a net conservation gain to the species by avoiding, minimizing and compensating for unavoidable impacts from development.” This time around, however, BLM said that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act “does not explicitly mandate or authorize the BLM to require public land users to implement compensatory mitigation as a condition of obtaining authorization for the use of the public lands.”

“While grass height and habitat objectives are being dealt with differently in each affected state, across the board it appears that BLM has heard our concerns and is taking steps to ensure that grazing is put back in the conservation toolbox and made available to help this bird and its habitat thrive,” Lane said. 

The official release of the plans in the Friday, Dec. 7 Federal Register will trigger a 30-day review period, during which protests can be filed. The plans will be finalized sometime after that.

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