- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2015

DENVER | There’s one big problem with the Bureau of Land Management’s newly released federal habitat plan for the greater sage grouse: It’s federal.

That was the reaction Thursday from Western Republicans, industry groups and economic development advocates, who accused the Obama administration of bigfooting in what should be a state-led effort to protect the declining species — while balancing economic and development interests across the region.

“This is just flat-out wrong,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican. “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.”

The clash comes as the federal Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether to list the greater sage grouse by Sept. 30, a ruling that could have devastating consequences for Western states whose economies rely on agriculture and energy development.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who unveiled the updated BLM land-use strategy Thursday at a press conference in Cheyenne with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, said a federal role is necessary because “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.”

About 64 percent of the greater sage grouse’s habitat lies on federal land, but Western governors and private landowners have moved aggressively with projects to conserve and enhance sagebrush in a massive and unprecedented effort to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing.

Even without a listing, energy companies took a hit with the BLM plan, which seeks to minimize habitat fragmentation and surface disturbance by limiting the area used for new drilling operations.

The BLM strategy includes 14 different plans, taking into account different terrain and conditions in the West, but critics said the strategy comes as another example of the Obama administration’s high-handed approach to Western land and water issues.

Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, noted that his state has already spent $62 million on greater sage grouse conservation and science on plans that “take into account local environments, communities and economies.”

“The federal plans, by contrast, are a top-down approach that ignores the work states have already done,” Mr. Gardner said in a statement. “They do not represent a viable, workable option for states leading up to the Sept. 30 deadline.”

At the same time, many conservation and outdoor groups cheered the BLM plans. Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he was optimistic about the chances of avoiding an ESA listing.

“I think we’re on a path [that] if everything moves forward well and without interruption from Congress, we could get to a ‘not warranted’ listing,” Mr. Fosburgh said at a teleconference. “I don’t think that’s guaranteed by any means; I don’t think that the BLM plans guarantee that. I think you have to look at everything in its entirety, including the BLM plans, the state plans as well as Congress’ funding for it.”

Not all environmentalists were impressed. Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, which has pushed for an ESA listing, called the Wyoming section of the plan “a gift to the fossil fuels industry and a disaster to the sage grouse.”

Wyoming has the largest concentration of greater sage grouse, with 37 percent of the total population, which is anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 birds, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dan Naatz of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) argued that the federal effort fails to take into account, and may even conflict with, state and local measures already underway.

“While we support conservation efforts to protect the greater sage grouse, at first glance 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 [of measures] to protect this important species,” Mr. Naatz said in a statement.

The Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the greater sage grouse was deserving of ESA protection, but a listing was deferred due to higher priorities.

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