- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Bureau of Land Management moved Thursday to overhaul the Obama-era management of the greater sage-grouse, shelving a planned ban on mining claims and opening the door to more state and local control of the species.

The agency said it plans to publish a notice of intent in the Federal Register on the 2015 greater sage-grouse land-management plans, citing the need to comply with a federal court’s ruling in March against the designation of sagebrush focal areas in Nevada.

In a separate notice, the BLM also said it would withdraw an eleventh-hour Obama administration application to set aside 10 million acres of federal land in six Western states from mineral development in the name of sage-grouse protection.

The actions came with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke making no secret of his determination to revise the Obama-era policies on the sage grouse, whose vast habitat and fussy breeding habits have for years fueled a tug-of-war over species conservation and economic development in the rural West.

The notices ruffled feathers within the environmental movement but drew cheers from Western Republicans and industry groups that have decried the sage-grouse restrictions as unnecessary and politically driven.

But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop applauded the decision to reverse the mining ban.

“These withdrawals were never about sage-grouse conservation,” said the Utah Republican. “It was all a ploy to assert more federal power, ignore actual data and best science, and diminish the influence and authority of states.”

Environmentalists accused the Trump administration of prioritizing the interests of the ranching, mining and the oil-and-gas industry above species protection.

“This administration is playing chicken with the sage-grouse extinction,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. “The Department of Interior is now abandoning all pretense of protecting sage-grouse in a stampede to ramp up commercial exploitation of public lands.”

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell enacted the land-management plans in lieu of listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, which would have placed severe restrictions on economic activity in the rural West.

Still, Mr. Bishop said the alternative wasn’t much better, describing the plans as a “de facto listing.”

The BLM said it would reopen the public-comment process in order to consider amendments that would “help improve sage-grouse conservation, and to strengthen communication and collaboration between states and the federal government.”

BLM acting director Mike Nedd said Thursday that the agency was “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.”

“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,” Mr. Nedd said in a statement. “We welcome their input.”

The WWP has already sued the BLM over its 2015 sage-grouse land-management plans, arguing that they contain too many “loopholes and exemptions.”

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, argued that 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.”

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, disagreed, saying the Obama administration’s efforts to conserve sage-grouse habitat in 10 Western states represented a “top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”

“The attitude of this Interior Department, which is much more interested in real collaboration with states and counties, is welcome after the prior administration’s process that ignored real threats to sage-grouse and exaggerated impacts from human activities,” Ms. Sgamma said.

The BLM said the notice will trigger a 45-day comment period, adding that the process “could eventually result in some changes, significant changes or no changes at all.”

In June, Mr. Zinke signed a secretarial order creating an internal review team to evaluate “both federal sage-grouse plans and state plans and programs to ensure they are complementary and explored possible plan modifications with local economic growth and job creation in mind.​”

The Interior Sage-Grouse Review Team issued a report Aug. 7, after which Mr. Zinke announced he would relax some federal rules in order to offer states more flexibility in balancing species conservation with economic growth.

Mr. Nedd said the BLM remains “committed to an approach that balances durable, long-term conservation of the greater sage-grouse without adversely affecting economic development in local communities across the West.”

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