The Interior Department wants to reduce conservation efforts for the greater sage grouse and its habitats, upsetting local stakeholders who had come up with their own plans for how to help the small bird with falling population numbers across the Western United States.
A review team from Interior on Monday released its recommendations, but stakeholders say they don’t take into account the delicate compromises developed over the years by conservation groups, ranchers and others over the use of 167 million acres of land that affect everyone from the energy industry to sportsmen.
The new plan recommends several amendments to existing regulation such as loosening protections for the bird, specifically in mineral leasing areas. The review also justifies benefits to ranchers — such as increasing cattle grazing areas in the established habitat zones — in order to protect the area against wildfires and invasive plants.
Interior’s press statement says local representatives from 11 states were involved, but conservation groups said the plan disregards the former work done by stakeholders, which was more nuanced in its consideration of sage grouse protections. The alternative plan involved ranchers, sportsmen, public land managers, energy industry representatives and conservationists.
“The careless plan presented by Secretary Zinke, that ignores bipartisan, science based results, will no doubt fast-track the greater sage-grouse’s listing as an endangered species,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement on Monday.
The Interior Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the alternative plan.
And some industry groups welcomed the announcement, seeing it as a chance for greater collaboration between state and federal interests.
“Removing administrative barriers to conservation is critical to protecting the greater sage grouse without hindering responsible energy development and local economic opportunities,” Erik Milito, program director at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement on Monday.
Polling released on Friday shows voters in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho, the states with sage grouse habitats, are familiar with the bird, especially sportsmen and fishermen.
The Harper Polling results, sponsored by the sportsmen group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, showed strong support for the existing plans to protect the sagebrush landscape, the home of the sage grouse. Overall, 57 percent of voters support the current plan and 31 percent do not. Along party lines, 57 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats support the existing plan.
The existing plan allows for commercial uses such as oil and gas development on some of the landscape, but restricts development to protect the long-term conservation of the bird and more than 300 other species of animals. The plan took decades of work, according to local stakeholders, and the current administration should defer to it.
“Interior’s 60-day review shows a callous disregard for nearly a decade of research and collaborative work by states and agencies, while ignoring the western communities who weighed in with millions of comments and who simply want to see the plans left to work as intended,” Nada Culver, policy director for the conservation group The Wilderness Society.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his deputy secretary David Bernhardt to implement short- and long-term recommendation with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and other Interior offices.
The Interior Department excluded the sage grouse from its endangered species list in 2015. Listing it would have restricted states from any negotiations and compromises over additional use of the affected land.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the American Petroleum Institute.