The Interior Department orders a review of sage grouse plans

Some Western governors warn against an overhaul of the sweeping 2015 efforts.


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced yesterday a major review of 2015 sage grouse conservation plans. The plans, spanning 70 million acres and 10 Western states, represent an unprecedented compromise between the federal government and states over how to manage public lands to protect the imperiled bird while also allowing for energy development and other uses. Zinke’s new order requires a review to determine whether the Obama-era plans gave states enough say, and whether they inappropriately block extractive industry.

Sage grouse on the Coalmont lek outside of Walden, Colorado.

“There have been complaints by several of the governors that their ability to use federal lands, whether it’s for oil and gas, recreation, timber, across the board, that some of the heavy-handedness on habitat doesn’t allow for some of those uses,” Zinke said during a press call on Wednesday. “We just want to make sure first and foremost we work hand in hand with the states.”

Yet the 2015 plans now under review took five years to create and were in fact the product of input from an array of stakeholders, including state officials, ranchers, environmentalists, oil and gas representatives, and federal agencies. For many stakeholders, the sweeping conservation effort was a way to avoid listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, which would likely have led to stricter regulations on land use in the bird’s habitat.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, penned a letter to Zinke in May, warning against a major overhaul of the plans. Mead and Hickenlooper served as co-chairs of a task force that led negotiations for the grouse plans in 2015. “The task force as a group and the sage grouse states individually were directly involved in the development of those plan amendments,” the letter reads. “Wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time.”

According to Zinke’s secretarial order, a team of “land managers and other professionals from bureaus and offices, including (Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey)” is tasked with the review. The group will coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies. The secretary has recommended they take “creative approaches” to the sage grouse issue, such as captive breeding and focusing more on population targets rather than habitat management.

Federal officials have 60 days to conduct a review and provide Zinke with recommendations regarding the sage grouse plan.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor at High Country News and can be reached at [email protected]

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