Feds to give states more flexibility in protecting wild sage grouse

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Interior Department on Monday unveiled a plan to protect the threatened sage grouse that gives Western states greater flexibility to allow mining, logging and other economic development where it now is prohibited.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the strategy for the ground-dwelling bird that has suffered a dramatic population decline across its 11-state range. Zinke insisted that the federal government and the states can work together to protect the sage grouse and its habitat while not slowing economic growth and job creation.

While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect the bird, officials also have an obligation "to be a good neighbor and a good partner," Zinke said. The new plan ensures that conservation efforts "do not impede local economic opportunities," he said.

The plan comes after a 60-day review Zinke ordered in June of a 2015 plan imposed by the Obama administration. The plan set land-use policies across the popular game-bird's 11-state range intended to keep it off the federal endangered species list.

Mining companies, ranchers and governors in some Western states — especially Utah, Idaho and Nevada — said the plan ordered by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell would impede oil and gas drilling and other economic activity.

Environmental groups said Jewell's plan did not do enough to protect the sage grouse from extinction.

The ground-dwelling sage grouse, long associated with the American West, has lengthy, pointed tail feathers and is known for the male's elaborate courtship display in which air sacs in the neck are inflated to make a popping sound.

Millions of sage grouse once roamed the West but development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires has reduced the bird's population to fewer than 500,000 across 11 states from California to the Dakotas.

States affected by the plan are California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Zinke said in June that "state agencies are really at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations" across the country, adding that the Trump administration is committed to ensuring that state voices are heard in decisions affecting land use and wildlife management.

In particular, Zinke said he has received complaints from several Western governors that the Obama administration ignored or minimized their concerns as the 2015 sage-grouse plan was developed. Republican governors in Idaho, Utah and Nevada want more flexibility and have urged that conservation efforts focus on bird populations in a particular state rather than on habitat management that frequently results in land-use restrictions.

The new plan is intended to provide flexibility to states instead of a "one-size-fits-all solution," Zinke said.

On the other side, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming told Zinke earlier this year they opposed any changes that would move "from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states."

"Wholesale changes to the land-use plans are likely not necessary at this time," they wrote in a May 26 letter.

Hickenlooper and Mead co-chair a federal-state sage grouse task force that worked to develop the 2015 plan, which was backed by more than $750 million in commitments from the government and outside groups to conserve land and restore the bird's historic range.

Nada Culver, a senior policy official at The Wilderness Society, denounced the new plan as an attempt to "abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development" in the West that "puts the entire landscape at risk."

The 60-day review "shows a callous disregard for nearly a decade of research and collaborative work by states and agencies, while ignoring the western communities who weighed in with millions of comments and who simply want to see the (Obama-era) plans left to work as intended," Culver said.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Colorado-based group that represents the oil and natural gas industry, said offering states more flexibility was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough to rewrite the 2015 plan.

"Until Interior bites the bullet and starts amending these plans, it's merely postponing a real, needed correction," she said, adding that the revised sage grouse plan "will cause needless job loss and loss of economic opportunities" throughout the West.

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