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Interior Downplays Impact of Budget Bill on Sage Grouse

Interior Department officials on Friday remained optimistic that state-federal measures dealing with protecting the sage grouse will be worked out despite a Congressional move in the trillion-dollar omnibus appropriations bill to include a provision barring the federal department from moving forward on Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections (see Daily GPI, Dec. 11 ).

The omnibus appropriations bill littered with riders was narrowly passed by the House Friday and the Senate was expected to follow along over the weekend. While no one is exactly sure what the bill’s 1,600 pages contained, it appears the prohibition on federal action would be effective at least through Sept. 30, 2015, but it could be extended by the next congress. It’s a hastily constructed massive bill that almost none of the rank and file has had time to read, and the congressional staff will spend the next several weeks organizing it and filling in the blanks. The president has indicated his support for the government funding measure.

While characterizing the sage grouse rider as a partisan move by House Republicans to "kick the can down the road" rather than "find solutions to conserve the sagebrush landscape and the Western way of life," a Washington, DC-based Interior spokesperson told NGI that the department "remains optimistic that conservation measures can be implemented to avoid the need to list the Greater sage grouse on ESA," something Interior Secretary Sally Jewell reiterated to western governors at their meeting last weekend in Las Vegas (see Daily GPI, Dec. 9).

"We will continue to work with the same urgency along side our federal, state and local partners with the shared goal of reaching a 'not warranted' determination and providing predictability for the states, ranchers, energy developers and other stakeholders who are working to put effective conservation measures in place."

For analysts in western states and elsewhere trying to deconstruct the rider on Friday, it was not clear what the full impact of the provision might be. It attempts to bar the Interior Department from moving forward on protections for both the Greater sage grouse and the Gunnison sage grouse, but for the latter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has already finalized a rule designating the Gunnison bird as "threatened" (see Daily GPI, Nov. 14). Nothing in the rider changes that, one analyst said.

A source following the issue in the Obama administration told NGI on Friday that the Congressional rider continues funding for Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conserve sage grouse habitat. In terms of the listings on ESA, FWS will continue "to collect data and conduct analyses to reach a final decision."

The rider has no effect on developing state and federal plans for building partnerships to incentivize conservation, the source said.

A sage grouse adviser for one of the western governors indicated Friday that the states are satisfied with the ongoing process of working with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and various stakeholder groups to find a common resolution that will avoid an ESA listing.

Regarding the Greater sage grouse in eight states and covering 48 million acres, federal and state officials have been working toward a resolution dating back to when Ken Salazar was heading Interior aiming for a court-mandated deadline of Sept. 15, 2015. "So the question with this rider is can they wait to do a final rule on Sept. 30, 2015? The rider doesn't prevent Interior from continuing to work with the states," he said. "Overall, everyone is sort of shaking their heads, asking 'what does all this mean?' [given the rider]."

Under the ESA, a species is listed as threatened if it is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. It can take years to be removed from a threatened listing by the FWS. The most perilous listing of “endangered” is given if a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. It may take decades to be removed from the endangered list.

Since being proposed last year for listing, estimates on the annual cost of conservation of the Gunnison sage grouse found in parts of a 1.7 million-acre area in the two states is $290 million (see Daily GPI, Sept. 20, 2013). The Gunnison sage grouse is impactful on oil/gas operations, but to a much lesser extent than the Greater sage grouse.

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