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Governors, Energy Industry Divided Over Interior's Sage Grouse Plans

In the wake of the Trump administration announcing it will reconsider controversial protections for the greater sage grouse, whose habitat is spread across the West, an oil and gas industry group and the governors of two Western states are divided over the change -- with industry arguing it's a smart move, but state leaders fearing the reboot will fail and the bird could be listed as endangered.

On Thursday, the Department of Interior's (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued two notices, with one announcing it intends to reconsider land use plans from 2014 and 2015 designed to protect the bird's habitat. In the other notice, BLM said it would withdraw protections from 10 million acres of habitat on federal land and cancel an associated environmental impact statement (EIS).

The land use reconsideration was prompted by a ruling in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada last March. A judge ruled BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a supplemental EIS for more than 2.8 million acres of sagebrush in Nevada and northeastern California.

"The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government, including states, as well as tribal leaders, industry and conservation groups, ranchers and other stakeholders throughout the amendment process," said BLM Acting Director Mike Nedd. "During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans. We welcome their input."

Colorado, Wyoming Governors Concerned

At first, Govs. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Matt Mead (R-WY) welcomed the news with some trepidation.

"We are concerned that DOI could upset the balance in Colorado and other western states on greater sage grouse conservation," Hickenlooper said. "Efforts at the state level involving diverse interests -- ranchers, conservation and wildlife groups, the energy industry, and state and local partners -- have led to collaborative solutions that have kept the species off of the endangered species list, while acknowledging and accommodating local needs for economic development and reducing the risk of uncertainty.

"Colorado stakeholders have a history of working together on innovative solutions that create flexibility for developers and landowners; and conserve species in a way that keeps them from needing federal protection. Today, that work continues as stakeholders collectively determine the best path forward should the federal government change course. We call upon Secretary Zinke to meet with the Western governors and the National Sage Grouse Task Force before making any amendments to the current plans protecting the sage-grouse."

Mead added that "we're roughly two years into having sage grouse not listed” under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). “This is a good thing for the bird and energy development. As BLM looks to make changes to its federal plans, I would encourage the agency to find ways to better align with Wyoming's state plan.

“Folks representing energy, agriculture, recreation and conservation all came together to help frame the state's plan to ensure a strong habitat for sage grouse in Wyoming. There are positive changes that can be made to the federal plans, but we should be careful and thoughtful about how we do that."

Mead was more candid in a Sept. 29 interview with the Casper Star-Tribune. "I just can't overemphasize how important it is to have that state input," he said. "If it was a state-by state-listing decision, that'd be one thing. But the way we are with the law right now, if one state gets listed [on the ESA], we all are going to get listed. We sink or swim together...

"Mineral companies need long-term predictability as they decide where to put capital. On top of that the bird needs a long-term plan. We can't have wholesale changes in wildlife management every four or eight years. I don't think that is the best way to sustain populations or provide the necessary predictability to industry and business in our states."

DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a review of greater sage grouse protection plans last June, in part to determine whether any protections were interfering with energy development on public lands.

Move Premature, Says Group

Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), said the group doesn't believe the DOI or BLM exhausted all of their options before Zinke ultimately decided on the review. TRCP called the move premature.

"Some targeted amendments to the plans may be necessary and could be acceptable once all other options have been exhausted, but we do not support major changes from amendments to the federal plans," Fosburgh said. "The current federal plans already balanced the conservation and management of sage-grouse priority habitat with energy development and other multiple uses of public lands. Representatives from the oil and gas, wind, and grazing industries, among others, were deeply involved in developing the current sage-grouse plans.

"Expanding development within priority habitat would be ill-advised and invite further litigation. Any future changes to the conservation measures in the plans must be defensible and supported by past and current scientific information."

Western Energy Alliance (WEA) President Kathleen Sgamma said the organization was encouraged that the BLM was moving forward with amending the sage grouse plans.

"The plans discouraged on-the-ground, local conservation efforts and ignored state plans, except for Wyoming’s, in favor of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach," Sgamma said Thursday. "The attitude of this DOI, which is much more interested in real collaboration with states and counties, is welcome after the prior administration's process that ignored real threats to sage grouse and exaggerated impacts from human activities.

Sgamma added that the "oil and natural gas measures in the plans were unnecessarily draconian, and disregarded the hundreds of measures that companies have implemented to protect sage-grouse. The plans inflated the impacts from oil and natural gas activities by completely ignoring the technological innovation and best practices implemented over the last decade that have resulted in 70% less habitat fragmentation."

Sgamma told NGI's Shale Daily on Friday that Mead "is nervous about the redo of the plans because his state was the only whose plan was actually deferred to the federal plans," while Hickenlooper "continues to wave the flag for Obama-era policies.

"Sage grouse populations are robust -- 425,000 at last count -- and the federal plan rewrite won't affect all the things states and counties are already doing on the ground to protect sage grouse," Sgamma said. "The states haven't let up from their at least four decades work protecting the species. It is arrogant for some, particularly environmental groups and certain bureaucrats, to assume that only the federal government cares about and protects sage grouse.

"We remain confident that [an ESA] listing can be avoided because of all the work being done on the ground to protect the bird."

The greater sage grouse and other sage grouse habitat are found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

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