WASHINGTON, June 7, 2017 – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is ordering a 60-day review of plans produced during the Obama administration for protecting the greater sage grouse across millions of acres in 10 states in the U.S. West.
State and federal wildlife officials spent five years negotiating the plans – announced two years ago but never implemented – with the help of private landowners, conservationists and industry groups. The result – customized plans for each of the states involved – was applauded in many quarters because it avoided a listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act, which may have entailed severe federal restrictions on land use.
Zinke, a former Montana congressman, said he’s traveled widely through the West in the short time he’s been in office and heard complaints that the government had been “heavy-handed” in putting the current plan together and there was a lot of “mistrust and anger” over the issue.
“We want to make sure first and foremost that we work hand in hand with the states,” Zinke said during a Wednesday evening conference call with reporters. “No party that I know wants the sage grouse to be listed … and all want a healthy population.”
The review will be conducted by a task force that includes officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey. Zinke said they would be looking at whether the current plan places too much emphasis on habitat protection as opposed to bird population, and whether more up-to-date technology, including drones, could be used in counting the animals and protecting habitat.
Environmental groups reacted with alarm at news of Zinke’s secretarial order, which was to be issued Thursday morning.
Zinke’s order “runs the risk of derailing a years-long effort to save the bird and a landscape that supports 350 other species,” said Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The work to save the greater sage grouse represents one of the most collaborative and significant conservation efforts in American history,” he said in a release.
“The conservation plans written by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, developed with input from states, local governments, landowners, conservationists, and others, are ready to go and should be carried out, not put on hold while sage grouse and their habitat face ongoing threats.”
Eric Holst, associate vice president of Working Lands, Environmental Defense Fund, said the review must avoid undoing “the extraordinary cooperative conservation efforts of ranchers, sportsmen, scientists, business owners, local and state officials, and countless other citizens that ultimately precluded the need to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act two years ago. These plans provide common sense protections for wildlife, ecosystems and public health, and should be allowed to persevere.”
“If the wrong thread of this carefully woven fabric is removed, the whole approach could unravel and the threat of listing will be back on the table.”
Hoist said the “ultimate danger” of changing the existing plan is not just for the sage grouse, but “also for the jobs and industries that benefit from roughly $1 billion a year in economic output driven by sage-grouse habitat in the outdoor recreation and tourism sectors.”
While Zinke said that some governors had complained to him about the current plans, Governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat, and Matt Mead of Wyoming, a Republican, were not among them. The two officials wrote to Zinke recently opposing any changes that would move “from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states.”
“That is not the right decision,” they said.
Greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions in the Western states but their population is now estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000, mostly due to loss of habitat.