Conservation groups Friday wasted little time in criticizing the Bureau of Land Management's decision to weaken sage grouse conservation plans set in 2015.
Panning the plan, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in a news release said new federal management plans for habitat relied upon by the greater sage grouse in 11 Western states ease restrictions on potentially harmful industrial development and undo collaborative efforts that were years in the making.
The BLM on Friday finalized its Records of Decision for revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across millions of acres of public land in several Western states. The Trump administration's approach replaces previous BLM plans, which in 2015 helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence the species did not warrant listing as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort. On the downside, the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats.
There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans. Combined with the Department of Interior's policy shift on mitigation, that could be cause for concern, TRCP officials said.
"The finalized plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans and never wavering from an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. We will continue working with the BLM, Western states, industry and local partners to ensure that happens."
The final plans eliminate focal areas, a subset of about 11 million acres of priority habitat on BLM land that would have been permanently withdrawn from any potential mineral extraction in the 2015 plans. The original no-surface occupancy policy remains - meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat - but the revised plans also give the BLM more flexibility to waive those protections in certain cases, according to the TRCP.
The previous plans also more clearly steered oil and gas leasing away from the best sage grouse habitat, but now the BLM is offering extensive tracts of priority habitat to willing buyers at a rapid pace rather than favoring non-habitat areas.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Conservation Director John Gale expressed concerns with the administration's approach.
"The administration had a tremendous opportunity to build on the strength of the 2015 plans while resolving some imperfections that would have improved consistency and partnership with states," Gale said. "Instead, they chose to eliminate protections for sagebrush country. This decision not only threatens the health of the greater sage grouse; it also negatively impacts more than 350 other species that rely on the sage steppe, including mule deer, elk and pronghorn."
Mitigation also remains a sticking point, the TRCP said, now that the Department of the Interior maintains it lacks legal authority to require developers to pay for any negative impacts to habitat. This shifts the onus of regulation to the individual states, each of which has different mitigation standards and legal requirements. The states now must ensure their mitigation approaches are not only effective at curbing habitat loss, but also at holding all developers accountable on a level playing field.
"Mitigation was a fundamental component of the 2015 plans that helped reach the not warranted decision," Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership, said in a statement. "Without offsetting unforeseen or unavoidable impacts - it's loss of habitat over time, plain and simple."
It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures.
"Whatever approach we take, the outcome for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat will need to be legally defensible," said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If there is not enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, and it is determined that our actions were not effective, we may end up facing a legal challenge deeper than the one we started from years ago. At that point, it's difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren't reconsidered for listing."
The American Bird Conservancy also weighed in on the plan, calling sage grouse trends troubling.
"Federal administrators began dismantling safeguards put in place by the 2015 plans as soon as they could, removing each layer of conservation management and mitigation," said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for American Bird Conservancy. "Now grouse populations are declining across their range and have nearly disappeared from Washington state and the Dakotas. The trend is ominous."
The U.S. Forest Service continues to finalize its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for proposed amendments closed Jan. 3, and the final revisions will be out in the coming months.
"We've seen a dramatic shift away from prioritizing energy leasing away from the best habitat and are now witnessing leasing of some of the very best remaining tracks of unfragmented land," said Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "We realize that leasing does not equate to development, and operators still must abide by stipulations for priority habitat, but it just makes good sense to steer disturbance toward non-habitat or stagger the timing of development in and around grouse habitat."