Feds to ease drilling con­trols that pro­tect sage grouse

The Idaho Statesman - - News - BY MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, MONT.

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

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 the bird.

Crit­ics warned that 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 stop the birds’ de­cline.

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 said. “Do they do it in ex­actly the same way? No.”

The changes drew a sharp back­lash from con­ser­va­tion groups and wildlife ad­vo­cates, who warned ex­ces­sive use of drilling waivers could push sage grouse onto the list of threat­ened and en­dan­gered species, and who said they con­tinue to fight an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is do­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal harm and putting the in­ter­ests of in­dus­try above all else.

“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 StoneMan­ning.

Sage grouse range across about 270,000 square miles in parts of 11 Western U.S. states, in­clud­ing Idaho, and two Cana­dian prov­inces. Their num­bers have plum­meted in re­cent decades.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posal would re­verse or mod­ify the Obama-era pro­tec­tions in seven states: Idaho, Wy­oming, Ne­vada, Utah, Colorado, Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon. No sig­nif­i­cant changes were pro­posed in Mon­tana, Washington or the Dako­tas.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice pledged to re­visit the bird’s sta­tus in five years, af­ter de­ter­min­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans were suf­fi­cient to keep the bird off the threat­ened or en­dan­gered lists.

The agency re­vealed Thurs­day that it no longer plans that 2020 sta­tus re­view, which can be a first step to­ward de­ter­min­ing whether greater pro­tec­tions are needed.

Spokes­woman Jen­nifer Strick­land said that the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice is not legally re­quired to com­plete a re­view. In­stead, it will work with the Western As­so­ci­a­tion of State Wildlife Agen­cies to doc­u­ment the ef­fec­tive­ness of the con­ser­va­tion plans.

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.

The new plans re­move the most pro­tec­tive habi­tat des­ig­na­tions for about 13,000 square miles of pub­lic land. Those ar­eas, con­sid­ered es­sen­tial to the species’ sur­vival, were a cen­ter­piece of the Obama pol­icy. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion also wants to drop some re­quire­ments to pri­or­i­tize leas­ing for oil and gas out­side sage grouse habi­tat.

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.

JERRET RAFFETY Rawl­ins Daily Times

Male sage grouses fight for the at­ten­tion of fe­males south­west of Rawl­ins, Wyo. 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 the im­per­iled bird species.

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