- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2018

DENVER | The Trump administration released Thursday its revised plans for the greater sage-grouse, moving to give states more flexibility by easing Obama-era regulations on an imperiled bird whose vast territory includes public lands used for drilling and grazing.

The Bureau of Land Management revisions would loosen the 2015 sage-grouse conservation plan by opening up some areas to mineral leasing and allowing for land-use waivers based on state priorities, changes designed to “strike a regulatory balance and build trust among neighboring interests in Western communities.”

While environmentalists raised red flags, both Republican and Democratic governors praised the updated plans, developed in cooperation with the Western Governors’ Association’s Sage-Grouse Task Force.

“We worked with the Bureau of Land Management and our stakeholders to produce a plan that maintains protection for the sage-grouse while balancing the potential impact on local economies,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “This is a significant step that closes out the planning phase and allows us to begin to see the true conservation efforts that safeguard the sage-grouse in Colorado.”

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon also praised the effort, calling it “a critical step that marks a shift away from planning toward active conservation and landscape management to protect this iconic species.”

Deep-blue California’s state Bureau of Land Management tweeted that “in keeping with @SecretaryZinke’s commitment to work closely with states to enhance conservation, BLM California proposes increased flexibility & access in sage-grouse plans.”

Far less sanguine were environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council, which described the updates issued under Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke as a “bald-faced giveaway to the oil and gas industry.”

“These plans show that Zinke will stop at nothing to make it easier for polluting industries to mine and frack every last acre of the West,” said Michael Saul, Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney. “This is a huge step backward for greater sage-grouse and for hundreds of other species that depend on unspoiled public land.”

The oil-and-gas industry avoided catastrophe in September 2015 when the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that a listing was “not warranted,” citing the ramped-up federal and state conservation efforts to protect the ground-dwelling bird, whose range spans 173 million acres on 11 Western states.

Three months before the decision, the Obama administration unveiled regulations to tighten energy development and improve habitat conservation on sage-grouse territory, which were hailed by environmentalists but also criticized for conflicting with some state and local plans.

“With today’s action we have leaned forward to address the various states’ issues, while appropriately ensuring that we will continue to be focused on meaningfully addressing the threats to the greater sage-grouse and making efforts to improve its habitat,” said Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement and proposed plan amendments — which apply to northern California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming — are open to protest during the 30-day period ending Jan. 8.

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, called the changes a “mixed bag” that will need to be implemented “to the letter” to prevent more declines in the sage-grouse population.

“These new plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage-grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” said Mr. Fosburgh.

Once numbering in the millions, the greater sage grouse population has dropped to between 200,000 and 500,000, although the aggressive state campaigns have yielded encouraging results. A study by the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies found that the number of males had rebounded in 2006 to its highest level since 1970.

“Unless the impacts of development are properly mitigated to avoid further habitat loss, sage-grouse could easily become a candidate for the threatened and endangered species list yet again,” said Mr. Fosburgh.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, called the revised plans “a great example of federal leaders listening to state leaders, valuing their expertise, and changing their plans based on that input.”

“That has not been easy, but it’s the right approach for the species and for the state,” Mr. Herbert said.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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