WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke relaxed protections on the sage grouse in 11 western states, including Nevada, in a directive issued Monday that opens opportunity for oil drilling and energy development in those states.
Zinke ordered a review in June of the 2015 Obama administration plan to protect the sage grouse habitat that some states and the energy and mining industries found too restrictive.
The directive was issued by Zinke following a report and recommendations by the Interior Department on the sage grouse protections.
Zinke said his modifications would give states more flexibility to administer conservation efforts to protect the threatened bird without hindering economic development.
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt has been ordered to begin implementation of the recommendations and coordinate with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey “to immediately follow through on the short- and long-term recommendations,” Zinke said.
Environmental groups immediately criticized the directive as a Trump administration gift to oil and gas developers at the expense of a threatened species.
Rebecca Riley with the National Resources Defense Council said Zinke “may ride a horse and wear a cowboy hat, but his sage grouse order shows he’s not acting in the best interests of western states and the rest of America.”
“Secretary Zinke is selling out the sage grouse — the western states — to oil and gas developers,” Riley said.
The Wilderness Society, the Audobon Society and the Center for Biological Diversity also protested the action.
“Zinke can’t seem to go a day without kicking open the door for more oil and gas drilling on our public lands,” said Michael Saul, a Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney.
The oil industry has argued that the Obama-era protections were too restrictive on habitat use.
“Removing administrative barriers to conservation is critical to protecting the greater sage grouse without hindering responsible energy development and local economic opportunities,” said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute. “The record shows that energy development and sage grouse populations can successfully coexist.”
Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said in a statement that the federal government and Nevada can protect the sage grouse and its habitat, “while also ensuring that conservation efforts do not undermine job growth and local communities.”
Zinke ordered the review and report from his department following complaints from some governors, including Brian Sandoval in Nevada, Gary Herbert in Utah and Butch Otter in Idaho that the Obama-era protections focused more on habitat preservation and less on bird populations.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Zinke not to make modifications to the Obama-era plan. Of the western states, Wyoming has largest sage grouse habitat and the largest population of birds.
Mead was instrumental in developing a collaborative, multi-state plan implemented by the Obama administration.
Once numerous, the sage grouse has become threatened, mostly because of overgrazing. The ground-dwelling birds are located across 11 western states and Alberta, Canada.
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About the sage grouse
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 across 11 western states.
States affected by the plan announced Monday are California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The Associated Press