Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell said oil and gas companies should be minimally impacted by plans to conserve the habitat of the greater sage grouse, as Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead added that the plans were essentially the last chance to avoid having the bird added to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in September.
On Thursday, DOI's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released 14 final environmental impact statements (EIS) for proposed land use plans on public lands in 10 Western states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The plans -- which were designed to conserve sage grouse habitat while also supporting economic development -- will now go through a 60-day governor's consistency review and a concurrent 30-day protest period, with a record of decision finalized by late summer. They were developed through a three-year collaboration among the federal agencies, states, localities and other stakeholders.
"There are some who are going to say these plans don't go far enough, [that] we aren't doing everything we can do to protect the sage grouse," Jewell said during a press conference Thursday. "But these plans are grounded in sound science -- the best available. They've got the guidance of the best fish and wildlife biologists. We're confident that these plans address the main threats to the bird and its habitat."
Jewell added that others may complain the plans would "lock up development," while also pointing out that two-thirds of sagebrush steppe, an ecosystem critical to the survival of the sage grouse, is on federal land.
"The vast majority of the conventional and renewable energy resources that exist in these landscapes that we have in the plans will be available for development," Jewell said. "Ninety percent of the lands with high and medium oil and gas potential are still on the table for development because they're outside of the priority habitat areas.
"Let's focus on the 90% that are available, not the 10% that are more complicated by their location with the habitat. With advanced technology like directional drilling that the oil and gas companies have been using, we can unlock a lot of federal resources that might underlie critical habitat without impacting the surface as we might have before. It's a false choice to suggest we can't have both conservation and economic development, because we can."
Mead said he is often asked by his constituents why there is such an inter-governmental effort to protect the sage grouse. "It is not just about the sage grouse," he said. "It is about the habitat. It's about the West.
"In Wyoming, we think about how important energy and mineral development, [agriculture] and tourism are. We recognize that what is at stake on one side is our economy. We want to make sure we can continue to have a strong economy. We want to have oil and gas development, tourism and [agriculture]. On the other side, we recognize that in order to do that we have to find this 'sweet spot' that we call balance, which is so hard to find.
"There is no future for our economy if we don't take care of the sage grouse. That's a fact. Some like it and some don't like it. But that's a fact. If you were saying this is a 100-mile path, we may be at mile 99 but that last mile is uphill. There's a lot of work to do, a lot of details to be worked out."
On Thursday, the BLM said DOI's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) "will review the plans and other actions to determine if the combined efforts are adequate to conserve the greater sage-grouse and its habitat such that a listing under the ESA is not necessary."
In 2010, then-DOI Secretary Ken Salazar said FWS scientists concluded the sage grouse deserved to be included on the ESA, but declined to do so because other species faced more imminent threats (see Daily GPI, March 8, 2010). After a court settlement in 2011, the BLM agreed to not make a decision on whether to list the bird as threatened or endangered before Sept. 30 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 30, 2011).
"I firmly believe it would not be in the bird's best interests if it's listed," Mead said. "We have found the skeleton key that opens the door for a better path on how to deal with endangered species. So much is riding on the decision in September. It's not just going to be about the sage grouse, it's going to be about the endangered species."
According to the BLM, the proposed plan’s three objectives are to minimize new or additional surface disturbance, improve habitat condition, and to reduce the threat of rangeland fire to sage grouse and sage grouse habitat. Specific to oil and gas development, the agency said the plans "will reduce surface disturbance...while recognizing valid, existing rights.
"The BLM will work with lessees, operators and proponents of proposed fluid mineral projects on existing leases to mitigate adverse impacts to sage grouse by avoiding, minimizing and compensating for unavoidable impacts. The plans prioritize future leasing and development outside of Priority and General Habitat Management Areas, and limit surface disturbance associated with new federal leases in Sagebrush Focal Areas and Priority Habitat Management Areas."
The BLM added that "in states without a demonstrated all-lands regulatory approach to managing [surface] disturbance, the BLM will require no-surface occupancy measures in new federal oil and gas leases in Sagebrush Focal Areas and, with exceptions, in Priority Habitat Management Areas in order to limit surface disturbance to protect sensitive habitats. Exceptions are limited to proposed development that will have no impact or a positive impact on sage grouse."
Predictably, the oil and gas industry voiced displeasure over the plans while environmental groups embraced them.
"While we support conservation efforts to protect the greater sage grouse, at first glance, these plans, with their significant new limitations on land use, appear to fly in the face of the meaningful conservation efforts already underway within the range states to protect this important species," said Dan Naatz, senior vice president for government relations and political affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "DOI must find a balance between thoughtful conservation and critical energy and economic development, but these plans appear to be wanting on both fronts."
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), said “conservation of the sage grouse is a goal shared by the oil and natural gas industry, ranchers, other industries, states, and communities across the West. That goal is best achieved at the state level, not with a one-size-fits-all federal approach.
“WEA will protest all land use plan amendments that fail to conform with state plans, and will continue to support actions by Congress to delay these land use plans and a final listing decision.”
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the plans are "a huge step in the right direction that holds out the promise to save not only this beautiful bird but also hundreds of other species, while protecting some of America's most precious and scenic lands."
Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a defense appropriations bill that includes language barring the FWS from making any decision on whether to add the sage grouse to the ESA until Sept. 30, 2025 (see Daily GPI, May 15). However, a Senate panel declined to do the same on that chamber's version of the bill.