Ignoring Western governors, Interior Department looks to undo local conservation plans

Zinke launched a review of dozens of Western state conservation plans on Thursday.

Zinke, center, with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, right, during a press conference at the Butler Wash trailhead within Bears Ears National Monument. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michelle Price
Zinke, center, with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, right, during a press conference at the Butler Wash trailhead within Bears Ears National Monument. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michelle Price

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed a secretarial order on Thursday launching a review of dozens of Western state conservation plans. The plans played a critical role in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the now iconic greater sage grouse did not need the protection of the Endangered Species Act and instead included local coalitions in the creation of tailored conservation plans.

The secretarial order directs an interagency team to review the 98 existing land-use management plans created to preserve critical sage grouse habitat, with the intent of determining whether they should be altered or rolled back. The sage grouse is a native Western bird known for its elaborate mating ritual and, more recently, its threatened status: sage grouse population has fallen by at least 97 percent over the last several years.

Zinke said the review will be guided by Trump’s “energy independence” executive order issued in March, aimed at removing environmental regulations governing the oil and gas industry. The agency’s review of sage grouse plans will include determining if the plans place a “burden” on energy development, even though the plans already make over 80 percent of areas with high or medium oil potential available for development.

Many conservation and Western-focused groups are calling the move an unnecessary attempt to open critical sage grouse habitat to oil and gas drilling — one of the primary threats to the bird’s habitat. Additionally, rather than continuing a landscape-level approach to conservation, the secretarial order calls for consideration of other, scientifically unproven approaches, including setting population targets.

“Westerners worked in an unprecedented way to create the current sage grouse conservation plans that are widely supported and serve as a model for future successful collaboration,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement. “When it comes to managing the traditional multiple uses of our public lands, the Interior Department must ensure that all local stakeholders have a seat at the table, not just those who agree with this administration’s goals of benefiting the oil and gas industry.”

After governments, ranchers, conservationists, sportsmen, and industry officials participated in lengthy processes to create flexible, locally-driven conservation plans under the Obama administration, Zinke’s order seemingly puts the interest of extractive industries ahead of those stakeholders.

Just two weeks ago, Govs. Matt Mead of Wyoming (R) and John Hickenlooper of Colorado (D), who co-chair a federal-state sage grouse task force, wrote a letter to Zinke, stating that “wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time.” Despite Zinke’s assurance in Thursday’s press release that state governments would be “first and foremost,” the Interior Department has yet to respond to the governors’ concerns.

“Secretary Zinke should be careful not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to sage grouse conservation,” said Brian Rutledge, the Audubon Society’s conservation policy adviser. “The existing conservation plans were designed with both flexibility and scientific rigor, guaranteeing maximum buy-in from Western communities and the best chance of success for the sage-grouse and more than 350 other species that depend on this landscape.”

Though Zinke said the current plans are “destroying local communities,” protecting the sage grouse habitat is not the economic threat that Zinke makes it out to be. Western economies rely on the roughly $1 billion a year in outdoor recreation spending fueled by protecting sage grouse habitat, and Western communities rely on the plans to ensure working landscapes are healthy for ranchers, sportsmen, and the 350 other species dependent on the sage grouse’s habitat.

A recommendation on the plans is due to the secretary after the 60-day review is complete. Trump has yet to nominate a director of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the person responsible for managing roughly half of all sage grouse habitat.

Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.