Reassessing the nation's greater sage grouse protections is a positive first step that needs further action, according to some western governors and oil and gas stakeholders who reacted Friday to the review of conservation plans by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
"We'll have to wait and see what comes out of the review," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA), which had been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of sage grouse conservation efforts.
Two years ago the Obama administration reached a compromise giving more latitude to individual states to avoid listing the ground-dwelling bird under the Endangered Species Act. Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the time called the plans "the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken."
Sgamma said Zinke's action is "the start of a process to review the plans to ensure that they're in line with state efforts, which were largely ignored by the Obama administration. It's a positive first step, but just a procedural one that doesn't change the fact that the 2015 federal plans are still in effect."
Governors in 11 western states worked on state-federal measures to protect the greater sage grouse, and in the Utah-Colorado area for the Gunnison sage grouse, to avoid an ESA listing. A spokesperson for the Western Governors' Association noted that the group provided a facilitation role through the Sage Grouse Task Force, but it did not take a formal position on the plans hammered out by individual states and the Obama administration.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said he is still reviewing Zinke's order, but he "appreciates" that the Interior secretary is reaching out to states to begin the review.
"Wyoming has been a leader on this difficult issue and will continue its efforts," Mead said, adding that Zinke appears to have recognized Wyoming's "good work and other western states' plans."
Mead said Wyoming's work was "a model for species management.” It includes a core strategy that was hammered out among representatives of the energy industry, agriculture and conservation organizations. The governor said Zinke "has taken time to review my letters regarding sage grouse, and I look forward to working with him."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he needs to complete a "close review" to better understand the details. Hickenlooper has encouraged Zinke to maintain a collaborative approach, which the governor thinks has made sage grouse protection efforts "so successful to date."
In Idaho, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter also was encouraged by the commitment to review what he described as "the Obama administration's draconian sage grouse plans.” He praised Zinke’s efforts, which he said "recognizes the states as being full and equal partners." Otter said Idaho would work with Interior chief "to address our concerns and bring about meaningful and necessary changes to the federal plan in Idaho."
Environmental groups blasted Zinke's action, labeling it as a sellout to the energy sector and other commercial operators on public lands. They vowed to keep pushing for more habitat protections.
“Zinke’s ‘review’ is clearly a pretext to push the sage grouse to extinction in return for short-term profits for his corporate buddies; they might as well form a shotgun posse to kill off the species directly,” said Center for Biological Diversity’s Randi Spivak, public lands program director. "We’ll do everything in our power to make sure this amazing bird and its habitat are protected.”
The greater sage grouse, an iconic bird known and loved for its elaborate mating dance, is imperiled, Spivak said, calculating that as many as 16 million birds once ranged across 297 million acres of sagebrush grass lands, a vast area of western North America known as the “Sagebrush Sea.”