Zinke to order review of conservation plans

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today announced a review of federal greater sage grouse conservation plans to determine in part if they are hindering energy production on public lands.

Zinke, who has been a vocal critic of the Obama-era sage grouse plans, will sign a secretarial order tomorrow to establish a review panel to look at both federal- and state-level efforts to protect the birds and possibly recommend significant changes to how they are managed.

"While we in the federal government have a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to take action, we also want to be a good neighbor, a good partner and recognize that a lot of the state agencies and the work that has been done thus far are really the forefront of the efforts," Zinke said.

He added, "We just want to make sure first and foremost we work hand in hand with the states ... because no party that I know wants the sage grouse to be listed and no party that I know doesn't want a healthy population of the sage grouse out West."


But the review will also be conducted with an eye to the earlier Secretarial Order 3349, which aims to increase energy production on public lands.

Officials from three Interior agencies will be asked to identify plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on potential energy extraction and other development on public lands, the agency said in a statement.

"There have been some complaints by some of the governors that their ability to use federal lands — whether it's from oil and gas, recreation, timber, across the board — that some of the heavy-handedness on habitats don't allow for some of those uses, and they've come up with what they believe [are] innovative plans and workarounds," Zinke said.

The Interior and Agriculture departments finalized their greater sage grouse plans in 2015 — covering grouse habitat across 70 million acres in 10 Western states — including amendments and revisions to 98 Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land-use plans.

The yearslong effort was an attempt by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and others to avoid a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act, a move seen as likely to stifle economic development in the affected states.

But Zinke, who has previously said that he prefers "state-driven solutions" for sage grouse, said the new review will consider "innovative ideas" such as whether captive breeding of the birds would be productive, as well as if the agencies could use alternate metrics for the animals, such as setting population targets by state and using unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct bird counts.

"This is a collaborative effort, the secretarial order does not change or alter existing work that has been done," Zinke said. He later added: "We're not going to ask the states to redo their plans but certainly give them the option to include more variables if we deem that appropriate."

The review team will include officials from BLM, FWS and the U.S. Geological Survey and will focus on what Interior called the "principal threats" to the bird's habitat, both invasive grasses and wildland fire.

Zinke said the team would be given 60 days to complete its review and then provide him with a summary and recommendations for any action the department should take.

Reopening any aspect of the sage grouse plan is expected to be a yearslong process — depending on public comment periods, reviews and legal challenges — potentially stretching beyond Trump's first term in office.

Twitter: @jenniferyachninEmail:

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