The Obama administration has released five options for making about 10 million acres of federal sagebrush habitat ineligible for new mining leases in the West in hopes of protecting the imperiled greater sage grouse.
Brian Rutledge is the director of National Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative and worked for many years on Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team. He said the mining withdrawals are less critical for Wyoming but very important for other states that got a later start protecting the species.
“Far more important than the issue in Wyoming is how impactful this is in some of the other states,” Rutledge said. “We have the best sage grouse plan out there. Wyoming’s been at it for longer than anybody else. But this is a welcome addition to protections.”
Rutledge said while Wyoming’s sage grouse protections are the best in the West, there’s a need to strengthen rules on mining in the bird’s habitat.
“Anything that disturbs the surface, anything that fragments the habitat, is a challenge to the species that is dependent on that habitat. We have to figure out how to put back some of that carrying capacity the land had,” he said. “And that will give us more room to do what we want, whether it be mining, ranching, gas development, oil development, you name it.”
In Wyoming, the proposed rules would affect areas around Rock Springs and south of the Bridger-Teton National Forest near the Idaho/Utah border. A public meeting to discuss the possible options for halting mining in sage grouse territory is scheduled in Rock Springs in February.
The President-elect Trump’s incoming Interior Department will make the final decision on which plan, if any, to adopt. Rutledge said he hopes the new administration will recognize how much collaboration by industry and wildlife groups has gone into Wyoming’s sage grouse protections and continue to build on them.