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Interior’s Sage Grouse Overhaul Should Rely on Science, Says Wyoming Republican Governor

The Interior Department is overhauling the Obama administration’s sage grouse protections, ostensibly to give western states more options, but Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming said he’s opposing the move and instead will continue to rely on scientific evidence.

The decision to overhaul a collaborative program set up in 2015 among states, industry and federal authorities was announced Monday by Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke, who in June said he would revise the sage grouse plan.

The revisions would give the affected 11 western states flexibility to individually manage habitat, issue waivers and expand mineral leasing and development, allowing states to use bird population numbers over habitat management.

The sage grouse, which has seen sharply dwindling numbers as energy development has increased, has faced a possible federal listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The federal government has a responsibility under the ESA to protect sage grouse, but there also is an obligation “to be good neighbor and a good partner,” Zinke said. The new plan would ensure conservation efforts “do not impede economic opportunities.”

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

The 2015 Obama plan, considered one of the largest land conservation efforts ever undertaken, is considered flexible, as it is a public-private program implemented at the state level. The broad plan was seen as a compromise with energy and business interests that avoided a more rigid endangered species designation.

However, Zinke said he has received complaints from several western governors that the Obama administration ignored or minimized concerns as the 2015 plan was developed. The new plan, he said, would give states flexibility instead of a "one-size-fits-all solution.”

The plan would appease Republican governors in Idaho, Nevada and Utah who have called for conservation efforts to focus on bird populations in a particular state rather than habitat management, which often results in land-use restrictions.

However, not all western governors are in agreement. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming oppose the changes. In a letter sent to Zinke in May, they said the wholesale changes to land-use plans were not necessary. Hickenlooper and Mead co-chair a federal-state task force on sage grouse that worked to develop the 2015 plan. The Obama plan was backed by $750 million-plus in commitments from the government and outside groups to conserve land and restore the bird’s historic range.

Mead stepped up his attack on Zinke’s planned revisions.

“Secretary Zinke and the Department of the Interior made an earnest effort to collaborate with the states during the sage-grouse management review,” Mead said. “The states have primacy over sage grouse management, and Wyoming’s plan is solid and should be allowed to work. The Wyoming approach balances energy, agriculture, conservation and recreation.

“The federal plans do not fully implement the Wyoming approach. While DOI identifies numerous ways to improve federal plans, I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding.”

The industry, said Mead, “needs predictability, but the report does not explain fully how population targets provide that certainty. Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species. I will continue to work with Secretary Zinke, state and local stakeholders on this issue.”

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma, whose Colorado-based group represents the oil and gas industry, said giving states more flexibility was important but the new proposal doesn’t go far enough.

"Until Interior bites the bullet and starts amending these plans, it's merely postponing a real, needed correction," Sgamma said. As it stands, Zinke’s revised sage grouse plan "will cause needless job loss and loss of economic opportunities" across the West.

The Wilderness Society’s Nada Culver, senior policy official, said DOI’s latest proposal was an attempt to “abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development" that would put “the entire landscape at risk."

The report issued Monday is the final product required under Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3353, “Greater Sage Grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States,” which he issued in June. Zinke directed DOI Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to begin implementing the recommendations and to direct the Bureau of Land Management, in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other offices within DOI, “to immediately follow through on the short- and long-term recommendations."

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