U.S. to ease oil drilling re­stric­tions pro­tect­ing sage grouse habi­tat

The Mercury News Weekend - - 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 that were put in place to pro­tect an im­per­iled bird species across mil­lions of acres in the Amer­i­can West.

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 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 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 sage grouse onto the list of threat­ened and en­dan­gered species.

“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 and two Cana­dian provinces. Their num­bers plum­meted in re­cent decades.

In 2015, af­ter de­ter­min­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans were suf­fi­cient to keep the bird from slip­ping to­ward ex­tinc­tion, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice pledged to re­visit its sta­tus in five years.

The agency re­vealed Thurs­day that it no longer plans that 2020 sta­tus re­view, of­ten a first step to­ward de­ter­min­ing if greater pro­tec­tions are needed.

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 AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Male greater sage grouse per­form their mat­ing rit­ual. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion moved for­ward Thurs­day with plans to loosen re­stric­tions on oil and nat­u­ral gas drilling and other ac­tiv­i­ties in the Amer­i­can West that were put in place to pro­tect the bird species.

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