A task force is recommending changes that could loosen protections for the greater sage grouse, a Western bird species renowned for its elaborate mating dance.
The report comes out of a review by the Trump administration of a massive Obama-era conservation plan for the bird which is imperiled by loss of habitat.
The administration says the revisions are aimed at giving states more flexibility. But critics argue that the changes favor mining and petroleum companies and could hurt the bird's long-term prospects.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a review of current sage grouse management plans in June, saying he wanted to see improvement in the bird's conservation while also taking into account "local economic growth and job creation."
The review task force came back with a list of recommendations that could relax rules related to the sage grouse around mineral leasing areas and allow for more flexibility in grazing management. Noting President Trump's executive order "Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth," the task force's review says: "A cooperative DOI and State effort can provide the flexibility for responsible economic growth and at the same time ensure conservation of [greater sage grouse] habitat."
Zinke has ordered his agencies to being implementing the recommendations immediately.
Greater sage grouse, which live across 11 Western states, have seen their populations decline from the millions to fewer than 500,000.
In 2010, their numbers dipped to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed that the bird warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act, but limited resources and higher priorities precluded it.
Still, the finding put a scare into natural resource-dependent Western states. A listing under the Endangered Species Act would have severely limited development on tens of millions of acres of Western land. One study estimated that $5.6 billion in economic output would be lost if the bird was listed.
As a result, a broad and unlikely coalition of biologists, ranchers, environmental groups, extractive industries, federal agencies and state and local governments worked feverishly to create a management plan for the bird that would preempt a listing.
Finalized in 2015, the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan was lauded as unprecedented and as one of the most complex and comprehensive conservation efforts in U.S. history. Then-Interior Director Sally Jewell described it as a "truly historic moment – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West." Given the efforts and an evaluation of the bird's population status, the FWS decided to not list the greater sage grouse.
Not everyone was happy though. Some environmental groups argued that the plans didn't go far enough and that the bird needed protections under the Endangered Species Act to survive.
A few Western states – Nevada, Idaho and Utah – argued that the plan was too restrictive and that it would impede economic development. Some oil, gas and coal companies agreed.
With the Trump administration touting energy independence, pushing for increased energy development on federal lands, and rolling back many Obama-era environmental policies, many expected the sage grouse plan to be reviewed.
In a memo posted with the task force's recommendations, Zinke wrote that he issued the review in response to "concerns" he had heard regarding the plan.
The American Petroleum Institute applauded his efforts in a press release on Monday.
"The record shows that energy development and sage grouse populations can successfully coexist," said API Upstream Director Erik Milito. "And the industry has been a leader in working with state governments and agencies to preserve Western habitats, while continuing to meet the needs of America's energy consumers."
Environmental and conservation groups are lambasting the decision to revise the current sage grouse management plan, saying that it's a sign that the Trump administration can't say 'no' to mining and petroleum companies.
"Weakening these plans puts the grouse at grave risk of further population declines," says Steve Holmer, Vice President of Policy at American Bird Conservancy.
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