Idaho News

New sage grouse plan pleases one of Interior’s critics — Idaho Gov. Butch Otter

A sage grouse in Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Wyoming.
A sage grouse in Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Wyoming.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said Monday he is “encouraged” by changes to the federal plan to protect the threatened sage grouse that give Western states greater flexibility to allow mining, logging and other economic development where it now is prohibited.

“This is an appropriate step toward empowering Idaho to proactively manage and conserve sage grouse populations while preserving the customs and culture of the state,” Otter told the Statesman. “However, much remains to be done. My staff and I stand ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the Department of the Interior to bring the federal plans into alignment with Idaho’s science-based conservation plan.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday announced the strategy for the ground-dwelling bird that has suffered a dramatic population decline across its 11-state range. Zinke insisted that the federal government and the states can work together to protect the sage grouse and its habitat while not slowing economic growth and job creation.

While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect the bird, officials also have an obligation “to be a good neighbor and a good partner,” Zinke said. The new plan ensures that conservation efforts “do not impede local economic opportunities,” he said.

The adjustments come after a 60-day review Zinke ordered in June of a 2015 plan imposed by the Obama administration. The plan set land-use policies across the popular game-bird’s 11-state range intended to keep it off the federal endangered species list. So far, that goal has been successful.

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, said the Interior Department’s review “pinpointed parts of the plan that can immediately be ignored or overturned through backroom deals and new policies, agreements, and staff training. It’s a cynical exercise in how to skirt sage-grouse protections.”

Mining companies, ranchers and governors in some Western states — especially Idaho, Utah and Nevada — said the plan ordered by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell would impede oil and gas drilling and other economic activity.

Environmental groups said Jewell’s plan did not do enough to protect the sage grouse from extinction.

The ground-dwelling sage grouse, long associated with the American West, has lengthy, pointed tail feathers and is known for the male’s elaborate courtship display in which air sacs in the neck are inflated to make a popping sound.

Millions of sage grouse once roamed the West but development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires has reduced the bird’s population to fewer than 500,000 from California to the Dakotas.

Besides Idaho, states affected by the plan are California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Zinke said in June that “state agencies are really at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations” across the country, adding that the Trump administration is committed to ensuring that state voices are heard in decisions affecting land use and wildlife management.

In particular, Zinke said he has received complaints from several Western governors that the Obama administration ignored or minimized their concerns as the 2015 sage-grouse plan was developed. Otter and his peers in Utah and Nevada want more flexibility and have urged that conservation efforts focus on bird populations in a particular state rather than on habitat management that frequently results in land-use restrictions.

Otter helped lead efforts to collaborate with the feds on the grouse plan, but in the last two years has consistently shared his displeasure with how the plan turned out. In 2015 he told then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell she needed to fix the addition of protected “focal areas” developed by the BLM. Later that year he sued the Obama administration over the plan. A federal judge in January dismissed Otter’s lawsuit, saying the state did not have standing.

The new plan is intended to provide flexibility to states instead of a “one-size-fits-all solution,” Zinke said.

On the other side, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming told Zinke earlier this year they opposed any changes that would move “from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states.”

“Wholesale changes to the land-use plans are likely not necessary at this time,” they wrote in a May 26 letter.

Hickenlooper and Mead co-chair a federal-state sage grouse task force that worked to develop the 2015 plan, which was backed by more than $750 million in commitments from the government and outside groups to conserve land and restore the bird’s historic range.

Zinke’s alterations again drew criticism from both conservationists and industry.

Nada Culver, a senior policy official at The Wilderness Society, denounced the new effort as an attempt to “abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development” in the West that “puts the entire landscape at risk.”

The 60-day review “shows a callous disregard for nearly a decade of research and collaborative work by states and agencies, while ignoring the western communities who weighed in with millions of comments and who simply want to see the (Obama-era) plans left to work as intended,” Culver said.

Kathleen Sgamma is president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Colorado-based group that represents the oil and natural gas industry. She said offering states more flexibility was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough to rewrite the 2015 plan.

“Until Interior bites the bullet and starts amending these plans, it’s merely postponing a real, needed correction,” she said, adding that the revised sage grouse plan “will cause needless job loss and loss of economic opportunities” throughout the West.