The Bureau of Land Management concedes it did not receive tens of thousands of public comments in support of Obama-era greater sage grouse conservation plans but says that's the result of a "breakdown in technology" and not an effort to discount supporters of the plans.
At issue is BLM's scoping report released this month detailing the public comments the agency received after opening up the grouse plans in October to public review, with the likely outcome that they will be significantly altered.
A BLM spokesman said in an email that roughly 42,000 public comments were not counted in the report, though the "exact overall number isn't known."
The reason: BLM never received the comments, said Donald Smurthwaite, an agency spokesman.
"All signs point to a breakdown in technology," Smurthwaite said. "There is no evidence of human error or malfeasance."
The "vast majority" of missing comments "were form letters or e-petitions," he said.
He said agency officials are "working with the scoping report contractor and technology specialists within BLM to pinpoint the problem. Our aim at this point is to take steps to ensure that a similar problem won't reoccur."
BLM said in the email today that it would file an addendum to the scoping report that includes the missing comments.
The decision to reopen the sage grouse plans followed a report recommending changes from a team of mostly federal regulators who were directed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review them.
BLM is expected to use the scoping comments to decide whether to move ahead with significant changes to the grouse plans via amending all or most of the 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans covered by the federal blueprint. The changes would ease protection measures that some states and industries have complained are unnecessarily burdensome.
The agency says in the scoping report that it received 1,040 "unique written submissions" during the 45-day public comment period that ended in December. Those submissions "included 4,666 substantive comments," the scoping report says.
"In addition to unique submissions, campaigns from nonprofit organizations and individuals resulted in a large number of form letters" totaling 80,031, according to the report.
But environmental groups including the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society say the report omits thousands of public comments urging Zinke not to alter the federal plans, finalized in September 2015. The plans were strong enough to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The groups say the scoping report "ignores" more than 100,000 public comments.
Tracy Stone-Manning, NWF's associate vice president for public lands, said last week BLM omitted more than 37,000 comments from that group's members and supporters.
Stone-Manning submitted a letter to BLM last week expressing "grave concern that tens of thousands of our supporters' comments are not reflected in the Scoping Report." She asked BLM to amend the scoping report "to reflect these comments."
"If the BLM is hiding or tossing aside comments from more than 37,000 National Wildlife Federation supporters and members, how many more voices defending sage-grouse are being squelched?" Stone-Manning said in a statement.
Smurthwaite said that the 42,000 public comments that are missing appear to have been sent by NWF.
"We've been working amicably with NWF to ensure that all submissions will be included in an addendum to the final scoping report," the email says. "NWF has agreed to send BLM a copy of its supporters' comment submissions."
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