Rejecting the state-federal collaboration on greater sage grouse protections hammered out by the Obama administration in 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is taking comments in an effort to emphasize state concerns.
BLM's notice of intent to amend the plans seeks to eliminate what has been characterized as a "one-size-fits-all" approach by the Obama administration and allow states to address issues regarding protection of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat.
The land use reconsideration was prompted by a ruling in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada last March. The court ruled that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement for more than 2.8 million acres of sagebrush in Nevada and northeastern California.
Western governors, including John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Matt Mead (R-WY), expressed some concerns about changing rules that they had supported. Mead has said he is opposed to the Trump administration making any changes to the federal plans, done in collaboration during the Obama administration with the states, without scientific analysis.
On Friday Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA) submitted 13 pages of comments supporting the need to amend the plans in favor of greater state control.
"The previous administration's land use plans ignored effective state efforts and conservation practices that are more effective than top-down federal plans," said WEA President Kathleen Sgamma.
WEA concluded that the BLM plans in effect have resulted in the loss of 9,276 jobs and more than $2.4 billion in reduced annual economic activity. Sgamma said she appreciated Interior taking time “to collaborate with states, counties, conservation groups and productive land users." She emphasized that the plans need to be revised to align with state plans.
In contrast, more than 100 wildlife and natural resource professionals on Thursday sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees BLM, urging that any changes to the grouse plans that were developed collaboratively be based on science.
Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 did not list greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), “which was predicated, in part, on the effectiveness of these plans for millions of acres of bird's core habitat," the scientists wrote.
The wildlife habitat experts said they could potentially support "some targeted amendments to the plans if those amendments are supported by science through the adaptive implementation of the plans," along with meeting other criteria, such as not altering conservation outcomes for the birds.
"We do not support major changes associated with amendments to the federal plan (changes to priority habitat buffers, disturbance caps or other requirements) unless those changes are supported by the rigorous implementation of adaptive management," the scientists said.
In September 2015, the Obama administration agreed to protect the grouse with public-private conservation programs at the state level and not through listing under the ESA, considered the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken, according to then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Protecting sage grouse habitat has been a major political, economic and environmental issue for 11 western states and the energy industry. The ESA decision two years ago brought together an unlikely set of allies including Democrats and Republicans, energy industry allies and the Environmental Defense Fund.
WEA supported the decision to list the grouse, but it was critical of the habitat protection plans as being "the wrong path," in which Obama’s Interior had persisted in "top-down, centralized management."