The Trump administration's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Thursday revised another vestige of the Obama era, this time releasing amendments and a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for protecting greater sage grouse habitat in 11 western states.
Revising the collaborative state-federal government plans from 2015 has been a goal of Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke since he assumed his position last year in the Trump administration. BLM said the amended resource management plans (RMP) and FEIS are in keeping with Zinke's commitment to work closely with each of the 11 states, highlighted by Wyoming and Colorado where the outgoing governors took strong stands on the sage grouse three years ago.
The revised RMP and FEIS will be published Friday in the Federal Register, according to BLM officials, who characterized the changes as "better aligning BLM RMPs with state plans for conserving sage grouse populations, striking a regulatory balance and building greater trust among neighboring interests."
“The plan amendments are a big improvement on the 2015 plans," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance. "There was better coordination with the states, which enables more flexibility for actual conditions on the ground rather than the previous one-size-fits-all approach. The most significant improvement is the removal of the ‘net conservation benefit’ requirement that was a concoction of President Obama’s pen and not based on law.
"We would have preferred that several other problems be solved in the rewrite, such as disturbance caps, but the flexibility to adapt to actual habitat conditions will enable adjustments at the project level as necessary,” she added. “An example of such a situation is when a project isn’t actually located in sage grouse habitat, even though inaccurate maps in the top-down plans indicated they were."
Various conservation groups expressed concerns and skepticism regarding BLM's changes in the 2015 plans. "We cannot manage grouse at a level where we are only one major event away from having to list the bird," said Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. "Habitat particularly on public lands must be managed to withstand events."
Other groups and a former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added their voices of concern and noted that the U.S. Forest Service is finalizing its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation. The public comment period runs through Jan. 3 next year.
The BLM said it worked closely with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. BLM officials pointed out that they are mandated to work with the states under a 1976 federal law.
"The proposed amendments in Wyoming would adopt the state's compensatory mitigation framework, clarify objectives for sage grouse habitat where livestock grazing is also authorized, increase flexibility to grant waivers, exemptions or modifications in energy leasing, and remove the Sagebrush Focal Area designation from more than 1.9 million acres of habitat," a BLM spokesperson said.
Prior to the 2015 joint plans being released, governors in Oregon and Colorado issued executive orders to upgrade conservation efforts for the greater sage grouse.
Last year, BLM made it clear in a notice of intent that it wanted to amend the sage grouse plans, seeking 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. Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA) supported the need to amend the plans in favor of greater state control.
The land use reconsideration was prompted by a ruling in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada last year. 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 Hickenlooper and Mead, expressed some concerns about changing rules that they had supported. At the time, Mead said he was 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.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) accused the Trump administration of rolling back protections for the imperiled greater sage-grouse, opening up the bird’s vital remaining sagebrush habitat to oil and gas development.
Ironically, what the Trump administration is proposing puts the sage-grouse on a path toward listing [on the Endangered Species List]," said Mark Rupp, EDF's wildlife campaign director.
“Westerners know that energy development and conservation can co-exist. Just last week, new polling reaffirms Wyomingites’ interest in preserving the sage grouse plans,” he said. “Women and men, old and young, hunters and anglers -- all wanted to maintain the sage grouse plans, expressly opposing reopening these lands to oil and gas production.”
Rupp added that “a bipartisan coalition of western governors, industries, ranchers and conservationists came together with the federal government [three] years ago in an unprecedented effort to protect sage grouse habitat and keep the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act -- an outcome everyone hoped to avoid.”