WASHINGTON, Oct 5, 2017 – The Interior Department will be reviewing protections for the greater sage-grouse in land-use plans for 10 western states, part of Secretary Ryan Zinke’s effort to allow for more energy development in the bird’s habitat.

The Bureau of Land Management made public today its intent to prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on plans that were amended in 2014 and 2015 as part of a collaborative effort between the federal and state governments to prevent the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. When published in the Federal Register, there will be a 45-day comment period.

“The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government, including states, as well as tribal leaders, industry and conservation groups, ranchers, and other stakeholders throughout the amendment process,” said BLM Acting Director Mike Nedd.  “During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans. We welcome their input.”

BLM also cancelled a two-year-old proposal to withdraw 10 million acres of sage-grouse habitat from mining development in six states – Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

“BLM determined the proposal to withdraw 10 million acres was unreasonable in light of the data that showed that mining affected less than 0.1 percent of sage-grouse-occupied range,” the bureau said in a news release.

“The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres to prevent 10,000 from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” Nedd said. “Secretary Zinke has said from the beginning that by working closely with the states, who are on the front lines and a valued partner in protecting the health of these lands, we can be successful in conserving greater sage grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth.”

The notices come two months after Zinke received a report recommending ways BLM could open more greater sage-grouse habitat to oil and gas development.

“There are multiple opportunities to be responsive” to executive orders addressing U.S. energy independence “while continuing a robust commitment to the conservation of (greater sage-grouse),” said the report.

At the time, Zinke told his deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, that BLM should focus on issuing a new “prioritization policy” for oil and gas leasing in sage-grouse habitat.

The announcements drew immediate fire from environmental groups and a couple of agriculture groups but were praised by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council.

“The current federal plans already balanced the conservation and management of sage-grouse priority habitat with energy development and other multiple uses of public lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Representatives from the oil and gas, wind, and grazing industries, among others, were deeply involved in developing the current sage-grouse plans. Expanding development within priority habitat would be ill-advised and invite further litigation.”

“Secretary Zinke is pulling the rug out from under literally hundreds of Western stakeholders from all parts of the political spectrum who came together to protect an entire ecosystem,” said Brian Rutledge, director of The Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “Today’s announced changes to the land-use plans were designed with only a select few oil and gas and anti-public lands advocates in the room. Zinke’s disregard for Western interests will only accelerate the decline of the underappreciated and fragmented sagebrush sea.”

But Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Federal Lands, said the ranching community was concerned about the 2015 sage grouse plan amendments.

“We know the ranching community, specifically public lands ranchers, have unique challenges and opportunities. The one-size-fits-all approach restricted our ability to play our part in this conservation effort,” Lane said. “I want to thank the Interior Department for their willingness to work with states and ranchers to get these plans right.”

“Cattle and sheep help manage fuel loads on public land, reducing the risk of wildfire, a major threat to sage grouse habitats,” NCBA and PLC said. “The plan amendments in 2015 created inflexibility for land managers that unintentionally prevented ranchers from properly managing rangeland inhabited by sage grouse.”

The U.S. Cattlemen's Association and National Farmers Union, in a joint statement, said it makes no sense to restart the process.

"While we recognize opportunities for improvement in certain areas of the plans, we can best move forward by refining the existing plans instead of starting over with new regulations," they said. "Throwing out the current plans and starting over will lead to years of uncertainty for both producers and land managers. Instead of continuing work to improve habitat, ranchers, conservationists, and agencies will be forced to spend additional time and money on rulemaking." 

A spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, Neal Kirby, said IPAA has reached out to members for input before formulating its position, but that it is concerned that cancelling the proposed withdrawal of 10 million acres from mining consideration could lead to the bird’s listing under the ESA.


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