(EnviroNews Nature) — Washington D.C. — On August 4, 2017, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke published a memorandum calling for the immediate revision of the 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan. This memo follows up on his June Secretarial Order to review sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) protections and the recommendations of the ensuing review task force.
Conservation groups describe Zinke’s memo and the recommendations as “reckless” and detrimental both to the sage grouse and to complex compromises already established between environmentalists and industry leaders. These agreements are inherent to the landmark 2015 plan, which aims to protect and enhance sage grouse habitat — namely the sagebrush ecosystem, a.k.a. the “sagebrush sea,” through multi-organization collaborations and voluntary conservation efforts.
A DOI press release states Zinke’s June order sought to ensure “conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities.” After a 60-day evaluation of the plan, the review team now proposes, among other actions, to “modify or issue new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development… work with the states to improve techniques and methods to allow the states to appropriate population objectives,” and to “investigate the removal or modification of Sage Grouse Focal Area in certain states.”
“The recommendations are a sideways attempt to abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development [in] favor of discredited, narrow tools like captive breeding and population targets. Gutting the structure of these plans puts the entire landscape at risk,” Nada Culver, Senior Director of Policy and Planning at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement.
The sage grouse’s habitat range spans 11 Western states and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the species, which once numbered in the millions, is now estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000 individuals. Concerns over how habitat conservation would hinder industry, agriculture and local economies, particularly as Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing was considered, kept the sage grouse protection debate in the national spotlight for 15 years.
The 2015 plan, which preempted ESA listing for the species, was achieved after years of costly evaluation, conflict and compromise between scientists, environmental groups, ranchers, extractive industries, and federal, state and local government agencies. While many conservationists, Western governors or industry reps were not satisfied, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell characterized the resulting plan as “truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West.”
The American Petroleum Institute (API) applauded Zinke’s August memo. “Removing administrative barriers to conservation is critical to protecting the greater sage grouse without hindering responsible energy development and local economic opportunities,” said API Upstream Director Erik Milito.
Zinke’s memo falls in line with the Trump Administrations’ opening of public lands to fossil fuel development and the review task force references Trump’s related Executive Order, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” as well as Zinke’s Secretarial Order on “American Energy Independence.”
Zinke’s focus on empowering states to directly manage conservation efforts within their borders mirrors the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) 2017 recommendations for legislative changes to the ESA, which also alarm environmentalists. “We cannot risk opening the [ESA] to the avalanche of destructive amendments that would gut our nation’s most effective law for protecting endangered and threatened wildlife,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO, said in June.
Zinke cited “complaints by several of the governors” about “their ability to use federal lands” in his ordering of the review of the Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan. However, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper sent Zinke public letters in April and May, specifically advising against a complete review of the hard-won compromise.
“If [the plan is] treated [carelessly] and without bringing all of those people back to the table, you risk ruining not just the plans or what they do for birds and 350 other species, but for the incentive to work together and compromise for shared outcomes,” Sara Greenberger, Vice President of Conservation Policy for the National Audubon Society, told the Casper Star Tribune.
Greenberger, who served under Jewel during the era in which the current sage grouse plan was developed, also conveyed the importance of emphasizing habitat restoration over captive breeding. An initial July report on a farm-and-release program in Wyoming, which is home to 37 percent of the species, finds this method to be ineffective – many eggs didn’t hatch successfully and those that did experienced a high mortality.
Chris Saeger, Executive Director of the Western Values Project, calls Zinke’s Order “another reckless decision made by special interests and Washington politicians behind closed doors – it is a clear giveaway to industry that undermines years of work by Western governors, communities and stakeholders,” adding that it “could well fast-track the greater sage grouse’s listing as an endangered species.”
On August 9, The Center for Biological Diversity (The Center) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking public records related to Zinke’s sage grouse recommendations. The Center is seeking all records related to his June Order and August Memo. It points out in a statement that the sagebrush sea habitat supports 350 species in addition to sage grouse, which are now “at risk of becoming casualties of the Trump Administration’s misguided mission to promote fossil fuel development and other extractive interests at the expense of preserving America’s public lands for wildlife, recreation and water.”
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