On a windy morning in September 2015, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stood at a podium on a patch of scruffy earth at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to announce that the greater sage grouse would not need federal Endangered Species Act protection after all. “What does this mean?” she said to an applauding crowd. “It means certainty. For states, for communities, for ranchers, for developers, who want to know where they can develop without compromising the health of the amazing sagebrush landscape.”
Now that certainty, or at least the prospect of it, has crumbled. Ninety-eight federal land management plans across 10 Western states, announced in 2015, were a key factor in the government’s decision not to protect the iconic ground-dwelling bird. The plans and other state and private-land conservation measures provided a sufficient path to recovery without a listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided. But last month, President Donald Trump’s Interior Department sent those plans — and thus the decision not to list the grouse — back into uncertainty. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a federal panel to review the plans over the summer, and now its recommendations open the door to overturning many of their core elements. Zinke has said he wants to give states more flexibility to manage their pieces of the vast sagebrush ecosystem as they see fit, including whether to allow more energy development.
“While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor,” Zinke said when he announced the review in June.
Conservationists see the recommendations as the first step in dismantling the plans, which took a decade of study and negotiations and were considered a massive, unprecedented collaboration between a variety of federal, state and local stakeholders. Ultimately, the sage grouse review signifies a pendulum swing in the West, toward extractive industry taking priority over the health of the sagebrush ecosystem that supports not just the grouse but hundreds of other species of wildlife and plants.
Zinke’s decision should come as no surprise, considering his longtime dedication to job growth through mineral and energy extraction. In his autobiography American Commander: Serving a Country Worth Fighting For and Training the Brave Soldiers Who Lead the Way, published last year, he writes: “What the BLM does know is that false tears for the sage grouse offer a very real way to arbitrarily restrict energy exploration activities.” His take on wildlife science also appears in the book. He writes: “It’s entirely possible that there are man-made reasons for the sage grouse’s population drop — if there has been a population drop at all, of course.” (The bird’s population, estimated to be 16 million in the 19th century, is now down to about 400,000, due to industrial development, wildfire and invasive species.) As early as March, rolling back sage grouse protections had reportedly made it to the top of a White House priority list.
Perhaps the most controversial element of Zinke’s sage grouse management vision is one that bucks scientific consensus. The former Montana congressman puts more emphasis on meeting population targets than on maintaining or improving sagebrush habitat. The August report, authored by representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, and Fish and Wildlife Service, does not say that habitat management will be entirely abandoned. But the new emphasis on population targets has raised concern from some state officials. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican who co-led the Sage Grouse Task Force, a group of state and federal officials that helped create the 2015 plans, criticized this shift. “We still strongly believe that management for habitat, based upon what science tells us, is the best way to do it,” he says.
Most wildlife biologists agree that managing sage grouse primarily for population avoids addressing the underlying reasons for the bird’s decline. San Stiver, a biologist and the sagebrush initiative coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, says, “Although we use population objectives for lots of critters we manage, it’s more difficult and a little less useful to arrive at that for grouse, mainly because of large fluctuations in populations.” Stiver says population counts are an important part of grouse recovery, but getting accurate numbers can be difficult: “In some of our states, you can’t actually get to leks because of snow and mud, and it ends up being an extensive proposition to get people fielded to do the counts.” Zinke also suggested in his secretarial order that captive breeding be undertaken to augment numbers. Yet experts say breeding has not been successful in the past: It’s expensive for the small number of grouse it produces and runs the risk of creating a genetically homogenous bird.
The Interior report also recommends changing habitat area designations, which limit development to protect the bird. (The plans take a tiered approach to habitat protection, with the greatest restrictions on “focal areas,” followed by “priority” habitat, and then “general.”) Brian Rutledge, director of the Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, points to the Montana Mountains in Nevada as one example of a priority habitat area where industry could benefit from changes to the sage grouse plans. “I know there are mining companies that want to develop there,” Rutledge said. “Now they have a much better shot at it.”
There’s a related recommendation in the report that could further weaken protection for priority habitat: removing U.S. Fish and Wildlife from its role in approving waivers for energy development in those zones. “To have FWS not have input in policing this whole operation puts BLM as the fox in charge of the henhouse,” Rutledge says.
Since the first rumors that Zinke was looking to rework the grouse plans this spring, most state officials have pushed to keep them intact. “Wholesale changes to the plans are likely not necessary at this time,” Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote in a letter to Zinke in May. Multiple sources close to the closed-door review process this summer told High Country News that state officials stood up for the years of work it took to complete the plans.
John Swartout, a senior policy advisor for Gov. Hickenlooper, says it’s “legitimate” that conservationists and others are worried the massive amount of work that went into the plans could be lost under the new administration. But Swartout sees a bright spot in Interior’s review: He interprets it as a kind of scoping document that outlines a number of alternatives to choose from. He says that in places like northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin, management plans could use more flexibility: “Let’s say an operator was technically less than four miles from a lek, but they’re in a ravine and birds are at the top of a plateau, and you could drill that formation without disturbing the birds.” Plans in Colorado were originally created with wiggle room for that kind of situation, he says, but “when the plan went to Washington, D.C., some of that got taken out.”
In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter has been receptive to the federal review. The report notes that some of the state’s 3.8 million acres of “sagebrush focal areas” could potentially be “removed” — welcome news to many, since Idaho is already suing over the focal areas that limit mining and grazing. Audubon’s Rutledge says that getting rid of those areas “might remove some expansion space for the grouse but it wouldn’t be terminally detrimental to the plans.”
In Utah, Zinke’s review is a boon for representatives who have long been critical of the Obama-era plans. The state has its own ongoing efforts to keep many federal lands open for grazing, off-road vehicle recreation and mineral and energy development. Utah representatives are working to weaken grouse protections from a number of directions. Republican Sen. Mike Lee introduced a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent an endangered listing of the bird until at least 2027. Utah also has a $2 million contract with the group Big Game Forever, which lobbies members of Congress to weaken protections for the species.
The oil and gas industry has been equally positive about Zinke’s review. The American Petroleum Institute issued a statement: “We look forward to reviewing Interior’s report, and continuing to work with the states and Department of the Interior to prioritize sage grouse conservation and local economic growth.” Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma couched her response to the plan in terms of states’ rights, writing in an email that the report reveals “the Interior Department’s new willingness to actually listen to states and localities instead of imposing one-size-fits-all plans.” In a letter she sent to the Interior review team in July, Sgamma detailed the industry’s qualms with the grouse plans. Almost every issue the letter raised, such as the “overly expansive” buffer zones around grouse breeding grounds, was later addressed in Interior’s recommendations.
Zinke’s vision for sagebrush country may have its day in the sun, enabled by a Republican-controlled Congress and a president whose executive orders show unwavering dedication to “energy dominance” through extraction on public lands. State and federal officials will continue to discuss the sage grouse plans in the coming months, with rounds of new recommendations expected this fall and again in early 2018. Swartout says it’s important that the Sage Grouse Task Force is involved in any future reworking of the plans. “You’re hearing from people on all sides that have concerns about what (the sage grouse review) means, but the truth is, we don’t know what it means,” he says. “What matters is what happens next.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
Photo: Wildlife biologists from the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife team up for the 2016 lek count near Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon’s sagebrush steppe landscape, which is critical habitat for the sage grouse and more than 350 other species. (Greg Shine/Bureau of Land Management)