Department of the Interior

Western officials critical of the sage grouse plans finalized under the Obama administration expressed cautious optimism regarding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent secretarial order that directs a review of conservation plans for the bird in 11 Western states.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) said he “appreciates” that Zinke’s review includes collaboration with states, and that Zinke “has taken time to review my letters regarding sage grouse.” “Wyoming has been a leader on this difficult issue and will continue its efforts,” Mead said.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) said in a statement that he was “encouraged” by Zinke’s commitment to review “the Obama Administration’s draconian sage-grouse plans.” He praised Zinke for “recogniz[ing] the states as being full and equal partners in the management and conservation of greater sage-grouse in the west.”

Zinke’s secretarial order, signed earlier this month, established an internal review team consisting of officials from the BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to evaluate state and federal plans for conserving and protecting sage grouse populations. In 2015, the Obama administration finalized plans for the species, which included amendments and revisions to BLM and U.S. Forest Service land use plans in Western states.

Signing the order, Zinke told reporters that he is seeking to restore trust between federal agencies and Western communities.

“We are trying to give the states more latitude to come up with a solution that they and we think is better suited, given the states have different territories, different amount of federal land, different terrain, and frankly a little deviation on the approach toward their management plans,” Zinke said.

Governors across the West condemned the Obama administration’s sage grouse plans when they were finalized in 2015. The plans included conditions and stipulations for miners, energy developers and ranchers with federal leases.

“If greater restrictions on public land direct development to state and private land, Montana loses the flexibility to manage habitat in a manner that is most protective for sage grouse,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) wrote in a 2015 letter to the Bureau of Land Management. “Protecting sage grouse in Montana depends, first and foremost, on the cooperation of private landowners, and their faith that we are asking them to step up and do the things that are necessary to succeed.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) called the plans “unnecessarily restrictive in nature” and a “one-size-fits-all approach [that] does not reflect the tremendous diversity in greater sage-grouse habitats across the West.”

Zinke’s order would give state agencies a larger role in developing sage grouse conservation plans, an approach that was met with enthusiasm among officials in the West.

“State agencies are at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations, and we need to make sure they are being heard on this issue,” Zinke said in a statement. “As we move forward with implementation of our strategy for sage-grouse conservation, we want to make sure that we do so first and foremost in consultation with state and local governments, and in a manner that allows both wildlife and local economies to thrive.”

“Biologists and other experts have stated time and again that the most effective species preservation efforts are locally tailored and take into consideration the unique ecology and topography of the region in which the habitat occurs,” Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) said in a statement. “I am pleased to see action out of Interior that will reverse the one-size-fits-all approach that jeopardized the ongoing work being done in states to preserve and recover the species.”

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told E&E News that the review was “appropriate” and something that “should have been done a long time ago,” but that legislation was needed.

“For sage grouse to be solved, and for the state plans to be put into application, it’s going to require some kind of legislative fix,” Bishop said. “It can’t be done administratively. You can move in that direction, you just can’t solve the entire problem administratively.”

Industry groups, as well as states, counties and ranchers, have filed suit to invalidate the Obama administration’s sage grouse plans. The latest to sue are four northwest Colorado counties – Garfield, Moffat, Jackson and Rio Blanco – that are concerned the plans would jeopardize ranching and energy development on federal lands, at a cost of $240 million to $584 million.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky (R) told Western Wire that he “appreciate[s] the interest from the secretary” and he “think[s] it’s the right direction,” but he remains concerned about the role that local governments can play in shaping sage grouse plans.

“I’m concerned this is more Washington-down decision-making that leaves local governments out,” Jankovsky said.

“I think that if we can go back to where the local governments and states are working with land holders, we can do more for the bird than some draconian measures that are being placed upon us,” Jankovsky added.

“It’s important that multiple use be emphasized” in the management of federal land, Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese (R) said.

These uses include recreation, grazing, wilderness, and the development of oil, natural gas and coal, Jankovsky explained.

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma welcomed Zinke’s order, describing the Obama administration’s sage-grouse polices as “anything but cooperative.”  “We hope Secretary Zinke will give Western states a real chance to implement sage grouse protections tailored to actual conditions on the ground in each state, rather than the existing plans that don’t effectively protect sage grouse but do kill jobs,” she said. Western Energy Alliance is a supporter of Western Wire.