Interior Department to loosen regulations protecting sage grouse

Federico Mansilla
Diciembre 7, 2018

The Trump administration has released plans to lift or alter habitat protections for the greater sage grouse across millions of acres of Western land.

While environmentalists raised red flags, both Republican and Democratic governors praised the updated plans, developed in cooperation with the Western Governors Association's Sage-Grouse Task Force.

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. He said the goal to conserve declining grouse populations remained unchanged.

"With today's action we have leaned forward to address the various states' issues, while appropriately ensuring that we will continue to be focused on meaningfully addressing the threats to the greater sage grouse and making efforts to improve its habitat", said David Bernhardt, deputy secretary of the interior. "We made some change in the plans and got rid of some things that are simply not necessary".

"Unless the impacts of development are properly mitigated to avoid further habitat loss, sage grouse could easily become a candidate for the threatened and endangered species list yet again", said Mr. Fosburgh.

"To have plans that took years of work, backed by good science and strong public support, brought into question is disheartening", said Brian Rutledge, with the National Audubon society.

The ground-dwelling bird ranges across about 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers) in parts of 11 Western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Federal officials under President Barack Obama in 2015 had adopted a sweeping set of land use restrictions meant to stop the birds' decline. Its numbers plummeted in recent decades.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke previous year had ordered a review of protections for the sage grouse to "ensure conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities" - one of numerous reviews of Obama-era environmental protections launched by President Donald Trump's administration.

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.

An estimated 16 million sage grouse once roamed a vast area of sagebrush in the U.S. west but years of development and the spread of agriculture has razed much of its habitat, causing a 90% population drop from historic levels.

The Trump administration's proposal would reverse or modify the Obama-era protections in seven states - Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho and Oregon.

Once numbering in the millions, the greater sage grouse population has dropped to between 200,000 and 500,000, although the aggressive state campaigns have yielded encouraging results.

In response, the Interior Department on Thursday revised the directive to say federal officials would consider state-mandated or voluntary proposals for land swaps or similar offsets, but would not accept cash payments. If a state permit for activities on public lands requires conditions such as the consideration of land swaps, he said, corresponding federal permits would also include that as a condition.

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