Will Zinke undo protections for the West’s most iconic bird?

The Interior Department reviews sage grouse management plans.


Just over two weeks remain in the Department of Interior’s review of sage grouse management plans that span 10 Western states. In early June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the review to ensure the plans adhere to President Donald Trump’s “America First” vision for energy development and give more say to states in how the bird is managed.

The review comes despite the completion of 98 different sage grouse plans in 2015 that took five years to negotiate. U.S. Fish & Wildlife called protecting the bird “one of the largest and the most challenging conservation undertakings in U.S. history.” The plans were seen as an unprecedented compromise between ranchers, conservationists, oil and gas representatives and state and federal governments. The Fish and Wildlife Service cited the plans in a 2015 decision to not list the bird as endangered, which would have likely put even stricter limitations on land use. While some governors have welcomed the review, many conservationists worry it could lead to policies that reverse or weaken those plans.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

This internal review is part of a broader about-face underway at the Interior Department when it comes to public lands management. In recent months, Zinke has begun a review of dozens of national monuments, moved to expedite oil and gas drilling and removed several high-level officials from their positions, including the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management director who was a key player in the 2015 sage grouse plans.

In March, Trump issued an executive order to review all policies that “potentially burden” oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy development. According to Zinke’s order, the iconic Western bird may be one of those burdens. Sage grouse live in Rocky Mountain and West Coast states, as well as the Dakotas. Their habitat has become fragmented and shrunk by about half since European settlement, and the population has declined as much as 90 percent due to subdivisions, oil and gas development, agriculture, wildfires and invasive species like cheatgrass and conifers.

Last week, officials on Zinke’s review panel met in Denver with representatives from several state governments to discuss the sage grouse plans. The federal panel includes representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Wildlife. State officials from a sage grouse task force led by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are also at the meetings.

“I’m hearing there’s a good deal of discussion of the shortcomings but large-scale acceptance of the overall importance of the plans,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the Audubon Society's Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, who was not at the Denver meetings but has spoken to others who were.

Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore told High Country News that Zinke’s review gives the states a chance to air grievances about the 2015 plans. “The process is actually a healthy one because it gives us a chance as states to… put forward our suggestions.” Moore said he is not advocating for wholesale changes to his state’s plan. But Idaho officials do want to scale back the 3.8 million acres of “sagebrush focal areas” that former President Barack Obama’s administration created to limit mining and grazing in certain sage grouse habitat areas. In 2015, Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter opened a lawsuit against Obama’s Departments of Interior and Agriculture over these areas.     

Utah also sued the federal government over the 2015 plans, arguing they unlawfully limit mining.

Governors Mead and Hickenlooper told Zinke in May that major changes to the plans are not needed. Several Western governors signed a letter in June, asking Zinke to meet with them to get their perspectives on the plans before making any major changes. 

One of the most controversial elements of Zinke’s order is that it points to captive breeding as a way to protect the imperiled bird and alludes to focusing more on population targets than habitat preservation. Many biologists say captive breeding will never work to bring back the species. Rutledge, who worked on Wyoming’s 2015 plan, says focusing on habitat is the only way to protect sage grouse and interdependent species. The plans were the first step in a longer process, he says: “It’s important to understand that the plans cope with stopping the bleed. What we need to move on to now is how to bring back the carrying capacity of the land.”

Balancing sage grouse habitat with oil and gas development may be the other most-discussed topic related to review. A Wyoming BLM field office, for example, recently cited Trump’s executive order encouraging energy development, as justification for preparing to open sage grouse habitat to drilling in the southwest part of the state, the Casper-Star Tribune reported.

Stephen Ting/Fish and Wildlife Service

Wildlife managers discussed Zinke’s sage grouse review at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in Vail, Colorado, earlier this month. One of the association’s committees produced four white papers on captive breeding, population, predator control and hunting* to provide to the sage grouse task force that met with Zinke’s federal panel in Denver last week. San Stiver, a coordinator at the association who led the creation of the white papers, told HCN that captive breeding efforts for sage grouse in the past have not been successful and are particularly problematic at a large scale. “One thing our directors are adamant about and wanted to portray to the task force is we don’t want to give up on our habitat objectives because habitat is the key to healthy wildlife populations,” he added.

The Interior Department has not responded to requests to identify who is on the federal panel. In a letter last week, senators from Oregon, Washington and Delaware requested more transparency around the panel and the review process. Multiple state officials told HCN they are expecting more meetings between Zinke’s review panel and state representatives, in late July. The panel’s report is due to Zinke before Aug. 7.

*The formatting of these papers may be changed before final versions are submitted.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. She can be reached at [email protected].org. 

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