A silver lining to sage grouse rollbacks?

While there’s less protection overall, a few Western states restore regulations that match or surpass original plans.


Just a few months into his short tenure as head of the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke announced an overhaul of the 2015 sage grouse plans, which protected habitat and limited oil and gas drilling on tens of millions of acres of federal land. After Zinke resigned amid ethics scandals, his successor, David Bernhardt, the architect of the rollback plans, took up the task. On March 15, the agency announced sweeping rollbacks of sage grouse protections across the West. Now, some Democrat-led Western states are using the rollbacks to implement more stringent environmental protections in sage grouse habitat.

An oil and gas lease that includes key sage grouse habitat in Wyoming was finalized in early March.

Four of the seven states impacted by the newly-released policies are led by Democratic governors, three of whom — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak — said they support the revisions, even as Democratic members of Congress decried the changes. As of this writing, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to comment publicly.

State policymakers worry about cuts to sage grouse protections across the region, but note that, in some cases, the rollback allows states to make more targeted conservation efforts. “We think it’s the best way to go, to get state-specific” on sage grouse conservation, said Jim Lawrence, deputy director at Nevada’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to work under the 2015 plans. A landmark conservation effort, the Obama administration’s sage grouse management policy package was a compromise between federal regulators, state officials, industry interests and conservation groups to both allow continued energy development and save the dwindling bird. The Trump administration’s changes weaken or cut entirely protections on about three-quarters of the nearly 70 million acres protected under the original plan, opening up oil and gas drilling on sage grouse habitat.

Western governors of both parties warned the administration not to undo the 2015 policies, but, when it became clear that the Interior Department would undo the agreement, these states got what gains they could, said Boise State political science professor John Freemuth.

“This is politics,” he said. “People will try to get the best possible deal.”

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt framed the revisions as returning decision-making power to the states. “The plans adopted today show that listening to and working with our neighbors at the state and local levels of government is the key to long-term conservation and to ensuring the viability of local communities across the West,” he said in a statement.

In practice, this often means less regulation and more oil and gas development on public land. In Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management recently leased for drilling 23,000 previously protected acres in an area with the world’s highest grouse concentration.

But in some cases, states negotiated with the Interior Department to restore regulations that matched or surpassed those from the 2015 policy package. For example, Colorado enacted stronger habitat mitigation policies, something that was not allowed in the 2015 policy package. John Swartout, Colorado’s former sage grouse policy chief who led the state’s negotiation with the Trump administration, said the state’s mitigation policy is better than previous federal standard, which Bernhardt rolled back. Colorado will also implement its own methane capture regulations on federal lands, another Obama-era policy cut by the Trump administration.

“I can’t speak for (Governor) Polis,” said Swartout, who worked in Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration, “but I think he came in and saw what we got. They gave us the leeway to have a stronger standard.”

Likewise, Nevada plans to apply stricter policies under its own sage grouse conservation plan, incentivizing habitat preservation and restoration through a credit system that quantifies energy extraction and land-use impacts to sage grouse habitat and ensures “net environmental gain.” This credit system is better than the previous standard and now applies to all sage grouse habitat on public land in Nevada, according to Lawrence.

“Our metrics are strong, robust and site-specific,” he said.

Oregon also negotiated for stronger mitigation policies on some sage grouse habitat, although there is scant oil and gas development there.

Conservation advocates warn that the point of the original sage grouse package was to safeguard crucial habitat and avoid piecemeal protections that vary from state-to-state. Now, even if some states opt for stronger protections under the revised rule, the net effect is that sage grouse and its habitat are less protected under the new plans than under the previous policies.

Overall, the sage grouse rollbacks are a loss for conservation, said Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. Culver said she understands that Western governors have an interest in maintaining good relationships with the Interior Department, but these Democratic governors need to be vigilant.

“The revised plans puts far more of the burden on the states,” she said, “and it’s unclear how much of a partner the Interior Department is going to be.”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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