Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to make fundamental changes to a sage grouse conservation plan adopted under the Obama administration. They could make it easier for ranchers and energy companies to move into sagebrush habitat that’s now off limits.
Only two years ago, the Interior Department adopted guidelines that kept the sage grouse off the endangered species list by creating protected zones throughout the chicken-sized bird’s eleven-state range where development wasn’t allowed. Many wildlife advocates considered the plan innovative since it took a landscape-wide approach, protecting the entire sagebrush steppe where the bird thrives.
But after a 60-day review, the Interior released recommendations making it easier to once again develop on such sagebrush lands by offering waivers and exemptions. The changes also give states more leniency in following the plan. It also switches the focus from landscape-wide habitat management to population goals.
Western Watersheds Project’s Erik Molvar said the old version wasn’t strict enough to start with.
“The idea is to take all of the protections, which were already weak and compromised, and basically write them away into nothingness,” said Molvar.
Molvar added he’s worried the changes will push the sage grouse right back to the point of extinction.
But others believe the DOI's changes are just a needed update to the conservation plan. Bob Budd is Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and part of the sage grouse implementation team in Wyoming.
“But any time you initiate a massive land use planning effort like this, they’ll be things that fall through the cracks, that can be better delivered on the ground,” Budd said.
He called the recommendations an opportunity to fine-tune what’s already worked well.
In a statement, Governor Matt Mead voiced skepticism over the changes which focus on population targets and captive breeding.
"Industry needs predictability, but the report does not explain fully how population targets provide that certainty. Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species,” Mead said.
Governor Mead signed an executive order in 2011 that developed a habitat management approach used as a model in other states. It was also used in developing the federal guidelines as well. The federal rules do not force Wyoming to change its sage grouse conservation strategy.