U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered a review of the federal government’s efforts to conserve the sage grouse’s habitat in 11 western states to ensure officials in those states are consulted.
The Obama administration put in place a sweeping conservation plan in 2015 that required the sage grouse habitat be protected.
The plan was backed by more than $750 million in commitments from the government and outside groups to conserve land and restore the bird's range, which extends from California to the Dakotas. By doing so, large areas of land were blocked from oil and gas and mining development.
While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect the ground-dwelling bird, “we also have a responsibility to be a good neighbor and a good partner,” Zinke said.
"We are trying to give the states more latitude to come up with a solution that they and we think is better suited, given the states have different territories, different amount of federal land, different terrain, and frankly a little deviation on the approach toward their management plans," Zinke said.
The ground-dwelling sage grouse, known for its elaborate mating ritual, range across a 257,000-square-mile region spanning 11 states.
The grouse population once was estimated at 16 million birds across North America. It's lost roughly half its habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states. There are now an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse.
Zinke said in a conference call with reporters that “state agencies are really at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations,” and the government needs to make sure state voices are being heard.
In particular, Zinke said he has received complaints from several Western governors that the Obama administration ignored or minimized their concerns as the plan was developed. Republican governors in Idaho, Utah and Nevada all would prefer that the plan give them more flexibility and rely less on habitat preservation “and more on numbers” of birds in a particular state, Zinke said.
On other side, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming told Zinke they opposed any changes that would move “from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states.”
“This is not the right decision,” they wrote in a May 26 letter. Hickenlooper and Mead co-chair a federal-state sage grouse task force that worked to develop the 2015 plan.
Zinke’s order calls for officials to evaluate both the federal sage grouse plan and state plans and programs to ensure they are complementary. A report is due in early August.