The new wrecking crew leading the Department of Interior works fast. It’s only taken about six months to slam the brakes on a plan to protect the greater sage grouse that was years in the making.
Speed was apparently necessary because the Trump administration thinks it can’t spare a moment in its sprint to remove restrictions on energy development. Monkey-wrenching the process now though may actually inhibit its goal of unfettered production. Ditto the energy industry.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a comprehensive review of the two-year old sage grouse management plans three years ahead of schedule.
Is the public supposed to be happy that Interior spent a whole 60 days reviewing nearly 100 federal land-use plans in 10 states, behind closed doors, before they hurried to the unfounded conclusion that Zinke knows best? Everything about his plan sounds terrible: It could allow more drilling in sage grouse habitat, reduce protections in high-priority focal areas for sage grouse, and abolish the requirement for Interior to act if catastrophic losses of sage grouse numbers or habitat occurs.
“Inferior” would be a better name for this department since the Trump administration took over.
The inherent hypocrisy of Zinke’s unilateral, top-down mandate is particularly tough to stomach. How long have “locals know best,” and “state control” been GOP mantras vis-a-vis federal resource management? How quickly do Republicans cry “federal overreach” when a land or wildlife management decision runs counter to a state position? Now, in power, one of the first things they do is run roughshod over a program that was painstakingly developed in collaboration with and enjoys the wide support of western states, including Wyoming. Maybe what they’ve really been saying all along is “corporate control” and “Haliburton” knows best.
The state-federal collaborative plan was created when former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was in charge. It has its roots in the much-praised state effort initiated by former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, and continued by Republican Gov. Matt Mead. The state plan identified core habitat areas that were placed off limits to much development. It was created with input from industry, wildlife managers, public landowners, cattlemen, sportsmen and women, nonprofit wildlife groups and other stakeholders. Together, by giving a little, getting a little and finding common ground, they reached consensus on a vital conservation issue.
It made sense for Wyoming to take the lead. While greater sage grouse are spread over 11 states, nearly 40 percent of the population is in the Cowboy State. The current plan is logically predicated on the proven conservation practice of preserving and improving sage grouse habitat. Only 35 million acres — about half of the bird’s total historic habitat — remains.
No, the current plan isn’t perfect. It is, by definition, a compromise. But when it was unveiled in 2015 the plan was responsible for keeping the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, which was the overall goal.
Some environmental groups found it too favorable to the oil and gas industry, so they sued. Now the challenge is from the right, which is happy to throw the principles of wildlife science out the window in the mad rush to open all sage grouse habitat to development.
Weakening habitat protections won’t affect only the health of the greater sage grouse population. It’s estimated that habitat conservation for the bird as outlined in the current plan will also help 350 other species, including mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and golden eagles.
“The sage grouse is kind of like a canary in a coal mine,” said Judith Kohler, communications manager of the Rocky Mountain Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation. “They’re really a bellwether species out of the sagebrush steppe. Habitat is the key. When the mule deer population declines, the less really good vegetation we have. It really is a domino effect.”
Like many cabinet members in the new administration, Zinke, a former Montana congressman tabbed by President Trump to take over Interior, seems only interested in causing havoc in the department. He wants to shift to a system that prioritizes managing sage grouse through population targets instead of habitat availability. Under such an approach captive breeding and predator control become primary tactics — ways to artificially, and temporarily, inflate headcounts and enable marginal development projects to proceed. The bird-numbers approach just doesn’t hold up to the science. The habitat approach does.
Large population fluctuations are typical for greater sage grouse. When Mead announced his opposition to Zinke’s order earlier this month, he warned that these population cycles could trigger unnecessary action under the secretary’s proposed changes. Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, sent a joint letter to Interior that categorically stated no changes in the plan are warranted.
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, of which the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is a member, maintains there is no credible evidence that captive breeding will work long-term to increase sage grouse numbers, especially without quality habitat. In a recent white paper the group said, “captive breeding has been used as a last resort for some imperiled species when all other efforts have failed, and we are nowhere near that point with sage grouse.”
The WAFWA also said that sustained lethal predator control programs for sage grouse will likely be strongly opposed and very expensive to administer. In fact, focusing primarily on habitat costs less than both captive breeding and predator control.
Unless, of course, you intend to turn a quick profit, then leave someone else to deal with the costs.
For whatever it’s worth, which isn’t much, Zinke has been transparent in his reasons. His order of review noted that “appropriate weight must be given to energy production and other development on public lands to fulfill the secretarial and executive orders on American energy independence.”
Nevermind that the current plan allows continued responsible energy development. The BLM is still approving oil and gas leases in sagebrush country.
Zinke has ordered his staff to modify or issue new policies for oil and gas leasing, including waivers, exceptions and modifications in priority habitats. James Lyons recently reported in High Country News that Zinke’s order ignores “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,” Lyons wrote. “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.”
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Kohler warned that if there isn’t enough protection for the unique bird in a new or revised plan, it could lead to its listing as an endangered species. “The effort to derail the sage grouse plan could end up with the situation we’ve always tried to avoid,” Kohler said. She added that it might lead to petitions to protect other sagebrush species with declining populations, like the pygmy rabbit.
The energy industry has long maintained that if the sage grouse is listed as endangered, it would greatly curtail gas and oil development and put some companies out of business. The state, in turn, would receive less mineral tax revenue, putting the state in a protracted economic hole.
What if the Trump administration’s rush to boost production and enrich energy company executives results in a listing that would decimate the industry? Such a designation is certainly unlikely under the current administration, but what if Democrats take back the White House in 2020 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under new leadership, decides Trump, Zinke & Co. have destroyed so much habitat that the greater sage grouse must receive endangered status?
You can bet we’d hear plenty of shrill complaints about heavy-handed, nonresponsive federal government overreach.
The irony abounds.
Ed. note: This column was corrected on August 31st to avoid mischaracterization of an environmental group lawsuit.