Im­per­iled sage grouse at greater risk

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Bruce Fin­ley

Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials on Mon­day ad­vanced an over­haul of land-use rules aimed at open­ing more of the West to fos­sil-fu­els devel­op­ment, shift­ing the na­tion’s strat­egy for sav­ing im­per­iled sage grouse away from pro­tect­ing habi­tat in fa­vor of count­ing birds that could be cap­tive-bred.

This move an­nounced by In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke, over­rid­ing ob­jec­tions by Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper and Wy­oming Gov. Matt Mead, ig­nited a storm from con­ser­va­tion­ist crit­ics who ac­cused the ad­min­is­tra­tion of kow­tow­ing to the oil and gas in­dus­try at the ex­pense of sci­ence­based stew­ard­ship.

Zinke di­rected deputies “to fol­low through” and im­me­di­ately im­ple­ment rec­om­men­da­tions in a 53-page re­port to change cur­rent rules. Those rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude re­draw­ing bound­aries of pro­tected habi­tat, in­creas­ing flex­i­bil­ity for land man­agers mak­ing de­ci­sions, clar­i­fy­ing stan­dards for grant­ing ex­cep­tions, stream­lin­ing per­mis­sions to use land and chang­ing leas­ing pol­icy for oil and gas op­er­a­tors. States could use cap­tive-breed­ing and grouse pop­u­la­tion tar­gets, rather than healthy habi­tat, as a ba­sis for manag­ing devel­op­ment.

One ad­van­tage of the cur­rent habi­tat-based ap­proach — launched in 2015 to avoid list­ing grouse as an en­dan­gered spe--

cies — is ben­e­fits for 350 other species that de­pend on a Texas-sized area of sage­brush steppe. These in­clude other birds in trou­ble, such as Brewer’s spar­rows, sage spar­rows, golden ea­gles and the sage thrasher.

The Trump ap­proach gives greater flex­i­bil­ity to states for eco­nomic devel­op­ment — drilling, graz­ing, log­ging, hard-rock min­ing — that could hurt land, wa­ter and wildlife. In­te­rior of­fi­cials also are work­ing to in­crease coal min­ing on fed­er­ally man­aged pub­lic land. They’re ad­just­ing royalty pay­ments in fa­vor of coal-min­ing com­pa­nies.

Idaho, Mon­tana, Ne­vada and Utah fa­vored a re­lax­ation of the grouse-habi­tat rules, which were com­pleted un­der Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Sally Jewell but not im­ple­mented by fed­eral agen­cies such as the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment.

“Over­all, the sage grouse has ex­pe­ri­enced a re­ver­sal of for­tune, with fed­eral sage grouse pol­icy chang­ing from a tepid con­ser­va­tion plan to an ex­tinc­tion plan that places pri­vate prof­its ahead of all else on pub­lic lands,” said Erik Molvar, direc­tor of the Wy­oming-based Western Wa­ter­sheds Project.

“The feds have the au­thor­ity to start tak­ing ad­van­tage of loop­holes and writ­ing ex­cep­tions to sage grouse pro­tec­tions right away,” Molvar said.

How­ever, Western states in­di­vid­u­ally still could em­pha­size pro­tect­ing habi­tat.

“When you con­serve habi­tat, you’re also pro­vid­ing habi­tat for 350 other species. What will be lost is the pos­si­bil­ity of range-wide con­ser­va­tion,” Amer­i­can Bird Con­ser­vancy vice pres­i­dent Steve Holmer said. “We’re very con­cerned about that.”

Try­ing to save grouse through cap­tive breed­ing wouldn’t work, Holmer said. “With­out ad­e­quate habi­tat, even if you were able to breed a lot of the birds, you’d be put­ting them out into places where they can­not sur­vive.”

Fed­eral sci­en­tists in 2010 de­ter­mined that grouse needed an eco­log­i­cal res­cue re­quired un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act — but de­layed ac­tion. State lead­ers in Colorado and across the West be­gan a five-year push to cre­ate a grouse-sav­ing strat­egy that Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ap­proved. Gov­ern­ment agen­cies, con­ser­va­tion groups and others com­mit­ted to in­vest $750 mil­lion to carry out that strat­egy.

States, sports­men groups, in­dus­try groups, fed­eral of­fi­cials and con­ser­va­tion­ists called their col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach a ground­break­ing model for sav­ing large land­scapes, al­low­ing some devel­op­ment but with care­fully tar­geted re­stric­tions aimed at pro­tect­ing grouse and other species.

This year, Hick­en­looper and Mead had asked Zinke not to pro­ceed with a re­view of that plan. Then, when Zinke launched a 60day re­view any­way, the gover­nors wrote let­ters say­ing any shift away from habi­tat-based con­ser­va­tion would be wrong.

Hick­en­looper on Mon­day de­clined to com­ment. A spokes­woman is­sued the fol­low­ing state­ment: “We ap­pre­ci­ate that Sec­re­tary Zinke gave us the chance to pro­vide in­put into the re­view process. We are go­ing through the de­tails now to bet­ter un­der­stand the fi­nal re­port. We will con­tinue to work with our Colorado stake­hold­ers and the Sage Grouse Task Force to en­sure that pro­tec­tion of the sage grouse is ef­fec­tive.”

Chicken-sized for­agers famed for predawn mat­ing dances, grouse need healthy sage­brush steppe to sur­vive. Devel­op­ment, graz­ing and roads have ham­mered this habi­tat, re­duc­ing grouse pop­u­la­tions from mil­lions to less than 500,000. Sur­vivors are clumped across Colorado and 10 other states from the Dako­tas to Cal­i­for­nia.

Joe Amon, Den­ver Post file

Sage grouse are pic­tured on a ranch near Craig in April 2015. Devel­op­ment, graz­ing and roads have ham­mered the habi­tat of the species.

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