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Know the West

Under new Interior Department plan, sage grouse will suffer

New policies will prioritize oil and gas leasing over habitat.


James Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and lecturer and research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Somehow, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke needs to recognize that the greatest threat to economic development in sage grouse territory is not the existing sage grouse conservation plans, but the threat of losing the “regulatory certainty” that they provide. Lose the predictability necessary to encourage investment in the sagebrush landscape, and its communities are likely to become endangered along with the Greater sage grouse.

Zinke has now directed Interior Department staff to modify or issue new policies for oil and gas leasing, including waivers, exceptions and modifications in priority habitats, despite expert advice that further energy development in priority sage grouse habitat should be avoided. 

In fact, Zinke would open all sage grouse lands to energy development. This reverses current policy to lease and develop non-habitat first and ignores an independent oil and gas study that 79 percent of priority habitat areas have zero-to-low potential for oil and gas. And it is counter to the best practices of leaders in the energy business.


Also against expert advice (including, apparently, the counsel of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead), Zinke intends to establish state population goals, captive breeding and predator control programs that he believes will benefit grouse populations. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies questioned the population strategy, suggesting instead that preventing habitat conversion and degradation “will be necessary” to avoid listing.

One positive in the Zinke plan is the continued commitment to address rangeland fire, to combat cheat grass, and restore fire impacted areas. Fire is the principal threat to the bird in the western portion of its range, and preventing fire and restoring burned-over lands is critical to maintaining healthy sagebrush habitat and the bird’s survival. Another positive is the expressed interest “by most states in retaining the 2015 Greater sage grouse plans.”

Led by former Interior secretaries Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell, the Interior Department worked with Wyoming Republican Gov. Mead and Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, plus leadership from all 11 states in the species’ remaining range, to develop a strategy to conserve the bird and its habitat. Mead and Hickenlooper were joined by Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in September 2015, when Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the resulting state-federal sage grouse conservation plan provided enough “regulatory certainty” to protect this unique Western species so that Endangered Species Act protection would not be needed.

A male greater sage grouse showing off.
Bob Wick/BLM

The land management plans that comprise the strategy were developed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, but there was involvement from all the affected states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Suggestions from public land users, locally elected officials, cattlemen, sportsmen and women, and other stakeholders were a major part of the process. And the conservation strategy benefitted private ranchlands, too. It was an all-lands approach, and the level of coordination and collaboration was unprecedented.  

The Zinke directive, announced in conjunction with the sage grouse review, risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, particularly as it emphasizes that sage grouse conservation must not impede President Donald Trump’s efforts to achieve American energy dominance.  

How the report is interpreted and implemented by the Interior Department and BLM leadership will be critical. What they do to implement proposed changes in the plans and the process they follow will require close examination. A transparent process is important. Since changes will affect public lands, the public has a right to know how their lands and resources are impacted. The former Bush administration appointees now on Zinke’s Interior leadership team amplifies that concern, as they previously ignored calls for sage grouse conservation. Instead, these appointees accelerated oil and gas development on the public lands.

The 2015 state-federal sage grouse strategy was based on a review of threats to the bird’s survival that was completed by a group of state and federal sage grouse experts. The team made clear the urgent need to “stop the bleeding” of continued population declines and habitat loss and that conserving all remaining 35 million acres of priority sage grouse habitat “must be a priority” since only half of the bird’s historic habitat remains.

That is the strategy that still makes sense. But, if this and other key elements of the strategy are substantially modified or ignored, this new plan will not work. One can only hope that the wisdom of Western governors will still be consulted by the Interior Department.