Budget would gut federal sage grouse conservation plans

By Scott Streater | 05/24/2017 01:14 PM EDT

President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request would gut federal sage grouse conservation plans.

President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request would gut federal sage grouse conservation plans. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture, courtesy of Flickr.

President Trump’s budget request calls for cutting a significant chunk of funding for the Bureau of Land Management’s ongoing effort to implement sweeping greater sage grouse conservation plans, a move observers say is a clear signal the administration is backing away from the Obama-era plans.

BLM’s proposed $1.1 billion fiscal 2018 budget calls for cutting "greater sage grouse conservation" by $11.5 million, according to a BLM budget "highlights" page the agency released late yesterday. The budget highlights page also says BLM will delay implementation of a "Sagebrush Conservation Implementation Strategy" focused on restoring grouse habitat and will conduct "more limited habitat restoration work."

But BLM offered no details on the total amount of money it wants allocated to sage grouse restoration, or any details or explanation about the rationale behind cutting funding for implementation of federal grouse conservation plans finalized in September 2015.

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Those plans amended 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans to incorporate strong grouse protection measures covering nearly 70 million acres of federal lands in 10 Western states. The plans were instrumental in convincing the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Megan Crandall, a BLM spokeswoman, said details on the proposed sage grouse budget cuts would be included in the agency’s so-called budget justification document that is supposed to be posted on the Interior Department’s website.

"At this stage, we have a proposed budget for FY 2018 and we cannot speak to the specifics of implementation," Crandall said in an email.

But BLM has yet to post its budget justification document on the website as of this morning.

Representatives with the Interior Department did not respond to requests for more detailed BLM budget information in time for publication.

As it stands, the proposed cut would appear to represent a nearly 17 percent reduction in sage grouse conservation funding in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 — to $57.4 million from the $68.9 million that Congress appropriated for grouse conservation in the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending package approved earlier this month.

Numerous observers said the proposed sage grouse cuts are the first tangible sign that the Trump administration will seek to block implementation of the grouse plans.

The grouse conservation plans have been controversial and are the subject of numerous federal lawsuits from states, mining interests, the oil and gas industry and livestock grazing groups.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said changes to the grouse plans were coming soon.

The proposed budget concerns Steve Ellis, who retired last year as BLM’s deputy director and helped craft instruction memorandums directing agency field offices on how to implement the sage grouse plans.

"If the administration’s goal is to scale back greater sage grouse plan implementation, including conservation measures in areas important to the grouse, the proposed budget reduction would be a step in that direction," Ellis told E&E News. "It is still my hope that the administration, Congress and the states give implementation of the current plans a chance."

It’s not clear what congressional appropriators will do as they hammer out the details of a final budget plan this summer.

The $68.9 million — $8.9 million above enacted levels — included in the omnibus bill directed that the money "be used for on-the-ground conservation measures," a direct reference to the ongoing BLM efforts to implement the sage grouse plans.

But language included in the omnibus package also addressed criticisms of the plans from states like Utah and other stakeholders.

"The Committees expect the Secretary and the [BLM] to work collaboratively with States, communities, industry, and partners to address concerns" they have expressed with the federal grouse plans, the omnibus says.

The omnibus package included a measure — also found in Interior’s fiscal 2018 budget request — that maintains the current prohibition on Interior using any appropriated money to write a rule that would list the grouse as endangered or threatened under ESA.

Some observers see the proposed cuts as the first step toward the Interior and Agriculture departments reopening the land-use plan amendment process to revise the sage grouse plans — an effort that would take years and likely stretch well past Trump’s first term in office.

John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said the proposed cuts "would effectively shut the plans down completely."

That would be bad news for the imperiled sage grouse, as well as the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that the grouse and roughly 350 other species depend on, conservation groups say.

"The cuts proposed to the BLM’s wildlife management program budget threaten sage grouse" as well as the "unprecedented effort to conserve the species," said Mark Salvo, vice president for landscape conservation with Defenders of Wildlife.

Ed Arnett, a senior scientist with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, called the proposed cuts "deeply concerning."

"While a lot of great work has been done so far … the BLM plans have yet to really take off, and delaying implementation will not help the situation for sagebrush-dependent species or operational certainty for stakeholders," Arnett said.

The proposed budget cuts and any delay of the grouse plans could also lead to lawsuits from conservation groups seeking to force the Trump administration to carry out the already approved mandates, sources say.

"This budget is really terrible for the sage grouse and the sagebrush steppe," said Katy Siddall, energy director for government relations at the Wilderness Society.

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