With a new administration preparing to take office, the Trump administration is once again attempting to change regulations that saved the greater sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered …
With a new administration preparing to take office, the Trump administration is once again attempting to change regulations that saved the greater sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2015.
The Bureau of Land Management has announced changes to resource management plans in six western states, including Wyoming, to “provide management flexibility and access to public lands, and align with state plans for managing sage grouse as a wildlife species.” The six final supplemental environmental impact statements are in response to a 2019 order issued by the U.S. District Court for Idaho that canceled previous orders from the BLM.
In the case, the BLM and the U.S Forest Service proposed giving industry more access to sage grouse habitat, altering a collaborative rulemaking effort that was driven by the Obama adminsitration in 2015. During the comment period for the new plan, among many conservation groups claiming damaging environmental impacts from the proposed change was the Trump administration’s own Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA claimed the plan reduced buffers and diminished connectivity across the multi-state habitat of the imperiled species.
In October 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Barry Lynn Winmill enjoined the BLM and Forest Service from implementing the plan, forcing them to stick to the 2015 Obama administration’s rules.
“The sage grouse will suffer more hardships from the 2019 Plan Amendments than the defendants will suffer from reverting to the provisions of the 2015 Plans,” the Clinton appointee said in the decision. While the stated purpose of the Trump administration’s changes was to better align the BLM’s protections with state plans, Judge Winmill said that “the effect on the ground was to substantially reduce protections for sage grouse without any explanation that the reductions were justified by, say, changes in habitat, improvement in population numbers, or revisions to the best science.”
The BLM has now published new rules that say regulatory flexibility ensures each state can manage to the particular needs of its habitats, landscapes and communities — and that increased access to public lands and resources ensures shared stewardship of sagebrush landscapes to benefit wildlife and recreation and support local economies.
“With partners at the state and local levels, the BLM is working to conserve sagebrush habitat — for sage grouse and other species such as pronghorn, mule deer and golden eagles — while striking a regulatory balance and building greater trust among neighboring interests in Western communities,” the agency reported on its sage grouse plan.
But critics say the new plan uses the exact same language as previous proposals and is little more than an attempt to hamstring the Biden administration as it replaces the leaders of the agencies managing public lands.
During the Obama administration, there was a moratorium on extractive industry lease purchases on public land and the sale of hundreds of millions of acres of land in sage grouse habitat could be halted or reversed through ongoing litigation. Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, said the rule changes undercut the protections for a species that has lost 40% of its population in the last four years. Rutledge, along with many scientists studying conservation of the species, considers fragmentation of habitat, including by extractive industries, to be at the core of the issue.
“They are the same changes the court threw back at them before,” he said. “They just tried to dump a little perfume on them. And it still stinks.”
Sage grouse populations have plummeted from historic estimates of nearly 16 million birds to as few as 300,000, according to recent population estimates across 11 western states with suitable habitat. Earlier this year, a federal judge in Montana vacated an instructional memorandum issued by the Bureau of Land Management related to sage grouse, forcing the agency to cancel 440 oil and gas leases that had brought in more than $125 million in 2018 sales.
The new changes are sure to be challenged in court, Rutledge said. The 2019 lawsuit was brought by the Western Watersheds Project, Wildearth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Prairie Hills chapter of the National Audubon Society.
“Trump’s Bureau of Land Management doesn’t seem to get that they can’t just paper over their mistakes in failing to protect sage grouse habitat,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project, of the new changes. “Instead of strengthening sage grouse protections as scientific principles and sage grouse population declines would dictate, this administration continues to make excuses for slashing protections, with additional excuses and denials of the impacts of its decisions on sage grouse habitat.”
Habitat on BLM-administered public lands in the Dakotas and Montana is managed under several different plans, as approved in 2015. Those plans have not been affected by the court order.