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COVER STORY 2: Sage-grouse conflict is fiercest in neighboring states

Author: Mark Jaffe - July 10, 2018 - Updated: July 20, 2018

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Across the West, the Trump administration is pushing for sweeping changes to greater sage-grouse protection plans and bringing oil and gas development closer to the bird’s key habitats.

While only modest changes were proposed in Colorado, the amendments to existing plans in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Oregon are more substantial. All the plans were put in place in 2015 to prevent the bird being listed as an endangered species.

A male sage-grouse tries to impress a group of hens, at left, near the base of the Rattlesnake Range in southwest Natrona County, Wyo. (Alan Rogers/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)

In Wyoming, which holds the bird’s best remaining habitat, about 10.8 million acres of designated grouse habitat would be opened to drilling as close as a quarter-mile of a “lek,” the bird’s mating ground, according to a lawsuit. The Colorado plan has a stringent protection area for a mile around a lek.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who has been one of the Western leaders in developing local plans to protect the grouse and an early critic of the Trump administration approach, is adopting a cautious tone.

“I look forward to reviewing the documents and commenting,” Mead said in a statement to Colorado Politics. “I continue to appreciate the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management’s availability through many meetings and conversations to hear concerns.”

But BLM is already moving ahead. A December Montana oil and gas lease sale offered 98,889 acres, and 90 percent of the land was in grouse habitat. In January, BLM proposed an oil and gas lease sale in Nevada of 315,715 acres , 70 percent of it in sage-grouse habitat. There have also been lease sales touching grouse habitat in Utah, Montana and Idaho.

This has led to three separate lawsuits filed in federal courts in Idaho and Montana by environmental groups and landowners. They contend BLM has violated several federal laws and seek to overturn the lease sales made.

“Interior should have let these plans have time to work on the ground before they mucked with them,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president for public lands. The federation is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, seen on his ranch, has been one of the Western leaders in developing local plans to protect the grouse. (Associated Press)

But BLM spokesman Don Smurthwaite said in an email that the three years the plans have been in place “has provided enough time to judge what needs to be improved or adjusted.”

The sage-grouse initiative is part of “a bigger push for energy dominance on public land” by Interior, said Nada Culver, an attorney with the Wilderness Society, which is also a plaintiff in one lawsuit.

In addition to the grouse plan, there has been a reduction in acreage of national monuments, such as Bears Ears in Utah, and plans to offer drilling acreage near Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, Great Basin National Park in Nevada and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado.

“It is almost like a battle plan, and now we are trying to defend different places,” Culver said

BLM’s Smurthwaite said, “Encouraging environmentally responsible development of energy on public land and the health of wildlife are not mutually exclusive” and that the plans continue to include protections for the bird.

The sage-grouse plays a unique role in the conflict for its range stretches across millions of acres of federal, state and private lands, and it serves as an “umbrella species,” so protecting it helps about 350 other species that depend on the same “sagebrush sea.”

It is also why the bird can tie ranchers, drillers and local officials in knots.

“We are pleased that the administration is moving forward with the amendments to the sage-grouse plans. For the most part, they adhere to state conservation efforts that are much more effective than federal top-down, one-size-fits all Obama plans,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group.

Any changes won’t be final for months and are still open to public comment and change, Smurthwaite said.

That doesn’t assuage critics. “Our concern is at some point, the federal government is going to tip the balance, and then someone is going to sue to get the bird listed, and that is what everyone is trying to avoid,” Stone-Manning said.

Mark Jaffe

Mark Jaffe

Mark Jaffe has covered energy, environment and government issues for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bloomberg News and The Denver Post. He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and studied environmental economics as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He is the author of two books, "And No Birds Sing, The story of an ecological disaster in a tropical paradise" and "The Gilded Dinosaur-The fossil war between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the rise of American science."