This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. EDT.
The Bureau of Land Management has developed a draft analysis that calls for removing some key protections from Obama-era greater sage grouse conservation plans in Wyoming, including easing restrictions on oil and gas development and expanding some permitting exemptions.
That’s according to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) obtained by E&E News after top Interior officials this month outlined a series of changes in the Cowboy State with state and local government officials.
The Wyoming draft EIS has not been finalized and likely won’t be released to the public until at least next month, a source said. It covers only the 17 million acres of BLM-managed lands in the state.
But it offers key insights into the Interior Department’s still-evolving plans to change the Obama-era blueprint, approved in 2015, that amended 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans to adopt stronger grouse protection measures.
It’s not clear whether BLM, which has yet to share many details of the grouse plan amendment process with the public, is conducting concurrent environmental impact statements covering federal lands in the nine other Western states covered by the Obama plans.
BLM released a statement today saying the agency "cannot comment on a document that is not complete."
But the draft document is potentially significant because Wyoming is home to more than one-third of remaining greater sage grouse — more than any other state — making the welfare of its population critical to the overall effort to restore the bird and the sagebrush steppe ecosystem it shares with hundreds of other species.
The changes outlined in the "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS would require amendments to land-use plans stretching across 10 BLM field offices in the state, covering 17 million acres of surface lands and 28 million acres of subsurface mineral rights.
Major provisions outlined in the draft EIS include:
- Removing "oil and gas prioritization language" that calls for giving preference to projects outside of Priority Habitat Management Areas (PHMAs) designated by the federal plans.
- Integrating "flexibility into the plans to be able to adjust habitat management area boundaries without the need for a plan amendment" in the future, "based on information consistent" with data supplied by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
- Deferring to states as the lead on managing sage grouse within their borders. "In making management determinations on BLM-administered lands, the BLM will use, to the fullest extent practicable, state game and fish agencies’ greater sage-grouse data and expertise."
- Removing Sagebrush Focal Area (SFA) designations in the Obama plans that applied the strictest land-use restrictions in areas considered critical to the bird’s survival. The 2015 plans proposed designating 10 million acres as SFAs in six states, including roughly 252,000 acres in southwest Wyoming. The impacts to grouse of nixing the designations "would be minimal and would not affect [sage grouse] conservation in Wyoming."
- Developing a "programmatic analysis" that could lead to broadening the use of permitting exemptions, called categorical exclusions, "in order to enable, as appropriate, Field Offices to use other tools to authorize projects" without first conducting an EIS or an environmental assessment.
The overall goal of the proposed amendments is to comply with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3353, which "directed BLM to collaborate with states and stakeholders to improve alignment between federal management plans and other plans and programs at the state level, while ensuring consistency with BLM’s multiple use mission," according to the draft document.
"This enhanced cooperation between BLM and the Governor’s office will lead to improved management and coordination across the range of greater sage-grouse," it adds.
But some of the proposed changes appear to differ from Wyoming’s groundbreaking "core sage grouse area" plan, which identified roughly 15 million acres of prime grouse habitat in the state where development activities, such as oil and gas drilling, are to be discouraged.
BLM’s federal sage grouse plan essentially adopted Wyoming’s core sage grouse area concept onto federal lands in the state. And Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) has asked Zinke and Interior not to make substantive changes to the plans.
The draft EIS states, "No impacts to [sage grouse] conservation in Wyoming have been identified" by implementing the preferred alternative. Instead, it says, "consistent management across the state is anticipated to improve."
The draft EIS cites, among other things, recent research conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, at BLM’s request, analyzing the science on sage grouse since the 2015 plans were finalized, to justify these claims of no impact.
The draft EIS follows BLM’s decision last fall to reopen the Obama-era plans to public review, with the likely outcome that major changes would be made to the plans (E&E News PM, Oct. 5, 2017).
The decision to reopen the plans also included canceling a two-year moratorium order protecting SFAs from new mining claims while the agency conducted the EIS evaluating whether all, part or none of the 10 million acres should be withdrawn from mining claims for 20 years.
The decision to reopen the sage grouse plans followed a report recommending changes from a team of mostly federal regulators who were directed by Zinke to review them (Greenwire, Aug. 7, 2017).
‘Could be a big problem’
The draft EIS adds another layer of intrigue regarding how exactly the Trump administration intends to change the Obama-era plans.
A BLM spokesman told E&E News last month that it began the EIS process in March after issuing a final report documenting thousands of public comments the agency received after reopening the plans (Greenwire, March 29).
BLM never formally announced the EIS process had begun, though the scoping report last month stated that it "intends to consider the possibility of amending some, all, or none of the BLM land use plans."
Still, the draft EIS, which includes multiple chapters and hundreds of pages, indicates that work on the amendment process has been underway for months, even as the agency sought public input on the plans.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, cautioned, "Since this is a leaked version, it’s hard for anyone to speculate on what’s actually going to make it into the draft that’s released for public comment."
But Sgamma defended the need for change, saying in an email that "the main problem with the 2015 sage grouse plans was their one-size-fits-all approach that failed to recognize that the states are the entities with expertise and responsibility for wildlife within their borders. The federal government doesn’t have the data, management experience and knowledge of the habitat that the state game and fish agencies do, so deferring to states will result in better conservation of the sage grouse."
The proposed changes in the draft document concern conservation advocates and likely will be challenged in court.
The conservation leaders who reviewed the draft for E&E News all agreed that working closely with the states, which was done in developing the current federal grouse plan, is necessary.
Jim Lyons, who helped write the grouse plans as Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management during the Obama administration, said in an email that deferring to states on the sage grouse "is not a concern provided that management is done in collaboration with relevant federal agencies."
But Lyons, now a senior fellow for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said that formally removing language prioritizing oil and gas development out of priority grouse habitat "could be significant."
He also expressed concerns about potentially broadening the use of categorical exclusions. "This, as you can imagine, could be a big problem depending upon the actions they would seek to exclude" from analysis currently required under the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.
Sarah Greenberger, who as one of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s top counselors helped develop the sage grouse plans, echoed Lyons.
Greenberger, who is now vice president for conservation at the National Audubon Society, called the proposal to study expanding the use of categorical exclusions "deeply disturbing" and an area that she said she would "need to understand better."
She also said removing language from the plans prioritizing oil and gas development activities outside of priority grouse habitat is "problematic and out of line with the Governor’s executive order" establishing the core sage grouse areas.
Others said they are concerned about BLM’s suggestion that it does not need to conduct in-depth study of sage grouse habitat conditions because they were already studied by the agency when finalizing the grouse plans.
"BLM has concluded that the existing condition is not substantially different from that which existed in 2015," the draft EIS says.
Therefore, the document states, BLM can use "the data and information" used in the final Obama administration plan, which will be "incorporated" into the EIS.
Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center in Denver, said she fears that some of the changes in the draft EIS could lead to the sage grouse eventually being listed as an endangered or threatened species.
The federal grouse plans approved in 2015 were strong enough to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the greater sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"Without key protections for the most important habitat, such as management to avoid harm from oil and gas drilling and ensuring other damage is considered and avoided, as well as consistent management across the lands and minerals managed by the BLM, the greater sage grouse will remain at risk," Culver said in an email.
"For the BLM to somehow conclude that these changes would not harm sage grouse conservation is to ignore the reality of the path the agency is taking," she added.