U.S. to ease oil drilling con­trols pro­tect­ing im­per­iled bird

The Western Star - - BUSINESS - BY MATTHEW BROWN

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion moved for­ward Thurs­day with plans to ease re­stric­tions on oil and nat­u­ral gas drilling and other ac­tiv­i­ties across mil­lions of acres in the Amer­i­can West that were put in place to pro­tect an im­per­iled bird species.

Land man­age­ment doc­u­ments re­leased by the U.S. In­te­rior De­part­ment show the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to open more pub­lic lands to leas­ing and al­low waivers for drilling to en­croach into the habi­tat of greater sage grouse.

Crit­ics warned the changes could wipe out grouse colonies as drilling dis­rupts breed­ing grounds. Fed­eral of­fi­cials un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2015 had adopted a sweep­ing set of land use re­stric­tions in­tended to ben­e­fit the birds.

In­te­rior Deputy Sec­re­tary David Bern­hardt said the agency was re­spond­ing to re­quests by states to give them more flex­i­bil­ity in how pub­lic lands are man­aged. He said the goal to con­serve sage grouse was un­changed.

“I com­pletely be­lieve that these plans are lean­ing for­ward on the con­ser­va­tion of sage grouse,” Bern­hardt told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “Do they do it in ex­actly the same way? No. We made some change in the plans and got rid of some things that are sim­ply not nec­es­sary.”

The changes drew a sharp back­lash from con­ser­va­tion groups and wildlife ad­vo­cates, who warned ex­ces­sive use of drilling waivers could push the birds onto the en­dan­gered species list.

“If you al­low ex­cep­tion af­ter ex­cep­tion, that might make sense for a par­tic­u­lar project in a par­tic­u­lar spot, but you add them all to­gether and you have death by a thou­sand cuts,” said Na­tional Wildlife As­so­ci­a­tion vice-pres­i­dent Tracy Stone-Man­ning.

The ground-dwelling grouse ranges across about 700,000 square kilo­me­tres in parts of 11 Western U.S. states and two Cana­dian provinces. Its num­bers have plum­meted in re­cent decades.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke has vowed to lift ob­sta­cles to drilling, and grouse pro­tec­tions have long been viewed by the en­ergy in­dus­try as an ob­sta­cle to de­vel­op­ment.

Sage grouse are large, ground-dwelling birds known for an elab­o­rate mat­ing rit­ual in which males strut around breed­ing grounds with large, puffed-out air sacs pro­trud­ing from their chests.

They once num­bered in the mil­lions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice now es­ti­mates the pop­u­la­tion at 200,000 to 500,000. En­ergy de­vel­op­ment, dis­ease and other causes have dec­i­mated pop­u­la­tions in some ar­eas.

AP PHOTO

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ad­vanc­ing plans to ease re­stric­tions on oil and gas drilling and other ac­tiv­i­ties on huge swaths of land in the Amer­i­can West that were put in place to pro­tect an im­per­iled bird species.

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