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Interior Orders Review of Sage Grouse Protections to Assess Oil, Gas Impacts

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday ordered a review of the federal Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plans to see if they are in any way restricting energy production on public lands.

Designated by Zinke's predecessor Sally Jewell as the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken, the federal-state effort was launched two years ago. The cooperative plan protects the ground-dwelling bird with public-private conservation programs at the state level to avoid the bird’s listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The state effort was billed at the time as a comprehensive way to deal with a political, economic and environmental issue for 11 western states, while accommodating both the oil and natural gas industry.

A consistent critic of the Obama administration’s sage grouse plans, Zinke’s cabinet-level order establishes a review panel to look at both federal and state protection efforts that could lead to recommendations for significant changes in how the protections are managed. He emphasized that it was designed to improve the conservation efforts and bolster communications and collaboration with the states.

"While the federal government has a responsibility under the ESA to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor," Zinke said.

"As we move forward with implementation of our strategy for sage grouse conservation, we want to make sure that we do so first and foremost in consultation with state and local governments, and in a manner that allows both wildlife and local economies to thrive."

Noting that more than half of the sage grouse habitat is found on public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the interagency federal-state plans launched two years ago, Zinke said an interagency team of experts from BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey will focus on the principal threats to rangeland and the sage grouse: invasive grasses and wildland fires.

The review will examine the habitat protection plans in the context of an executive order by the Trump administration related to U.S. energy independence. "To this end, the team will be asked to identify plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on the potential for energy or other development on public lands," an Interior spokesperson said.

Zinke stressed the need for the federal government to be "a good neighbor" and put the states in the forefront of conservation efforts similar to what has been launched to protect the sage grouse.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, praised Zinke's action, noting it will help assess local economic and job growth in the face of the conservation effort. “Cooperation among the federal, state, and local governments will produce a better result for the citizens and species that depend on our public lands.”

In September 2015, Govs. John Hickenlooper of Colorado), Matt Mead of Wyoming, Steve Bullock of Montana and Brian Sandoval of Nevada appeared with Jewell to reiterate that their states and the Western Governors' Association (WGA) had reached a compromise that resulted in not listing the grouse under the ESA.

Just before the federal-state agreement in 2015, governors in Oregon and Colorado separately issued executive orders to upgrade conservation efforts for the greater sage grouse, emphasizing that individually and through the WGA the states had demonstrated that they were able to oversee dwindling habitat than are federal regulators.

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