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Obama Administration Seeks to Expand Sage Grouse Model in New Policy

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on Monday signaled its intention to revise its mitigation policy to a state-supported landscape-level model for the greater sage grouse that was established last year (see Daily GPISept. 22, 2015).

The revised policy was published in the Federal Register, and comments will be taken through May 9.

The USFWS said the policy would reflect changes in conservation challenges and practices during the past 35 years, including increased loss of habitat, climate change and advanced conservation science. In establishing the sage grouse model across 11 western states, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said it was something never done before.

With the USFWS decision not to list the grouse as endangered, a process began to implement 98 separate federal and state land-use plans that were hammered out over a three-year period, encompassing millions of acres managed by several federal agencies.

"The primary intent of the draft policy is to apply mitigation in a strategic manner that ensures an effective linkage with conservation strategies at appropriate landscape scales," the USFWS said. Mitigation was defined as steps taken to "avoid, minimize and compensate for" impacts on environmental resources (values, services and functions).

Supporters pointed out that specific development activities would have to be defended in the context of their larger role related to global issues, such as climate change and threats to species’ habitats. But early reactions indicated there could be push back from both Republicans in Congress and from environmental groups wary of any market-based approaches to regulation.

The proposed policy responds to a dictate from President Obama charging all federal agencies that manage natural resources to avoid and minimize damage to natural resources and "to effectively offset remaining impacts."

As the grouse issue has demonstrated, the issues of habitat, species and landscape protections often carry major political, economic and environmental issues -- particularly in the West with its vast tracts of public and tribal lands -- and often prompt strong reactions from the oil and natural gas industry and western leaders.

Last year the USFWS declined to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered, which brought together an increasingly unlikely set of allies (see Daily GPI, Sept. 23, 2015). Whether this draft mitigation policy will forge more collaboration is unclear.

What industry and environmental groups likely will pay attention to in the characterization by USFWS is a policy of being "over-arching" for providing guidance to minimize impacts to fish, wildlife, plants and their habitat on public and private lands.

"We intend to adapt or develop [USFWS] program-specific policies, handbooks and guidance documents, consistent with the applicable statutes, to integrate the spirit and intent of this policy," the draft document noted.

To dramatize the changes in land use and protections since 1981, USFWS noted that of all land development ever done in the United States, more than one-third (37%) has been since 1982. Most of this newly developed land had been habitats, including 17 million acres of converted forests. In 1982, 71 million acres in the United States had been developed in the Lower 48 states, and by 2012, another 44 million acres were added to the developed category.

During this same period, the USFWS and other agencies have increasingly turned to adaptive management in protecting natural resources, applying a landscape approach to conservation, the draft policy stated.

"Mitigating the impacts of action for which the USFWS has advisory or regulatory authorities continues to play a significant role in accomplishing our conservation mission under this approach."

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