Sweeping changes are likely coming to sage grouse habitat in Oregon and across the West, following a long-anticipated announcement from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
On Thursday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced that it is seeking input on its plans to amend management plans for the birds across 10 Western states, including Oregon. The agency will soon publish a notice of intent in the Federal Register, the next step in a public process that would change the way the greater sage grouse is protected.
Advocates for the oil and natural gas industry praised the changes, but conservation organizations in Central Oregon and beyond expressed concern that the changes could roll back protections for the embattled birds.
“This is essentially a giant redo button,” said Dan Morse, conservation director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.
In Oregon and across the West, the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird known for its vocal, elaborate mating rituals, has been a point of contention between conservationists and the energy industry for years.
The bird, which uses the sagebrush plains of Central and Eastern Oregon to feed and mate, was considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the species in 2015. Since then, the federal government has used habitat management plans — federal plans established by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after extensive discussions with state governments and other stakeholders — to manage sage grouse across the Western United States.
However, those plans, never popular with oil and natural gas interests, will likely see significant changes as the process moves forward. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and gas industry in the region, said the organization has had its eye on revisiting the plans since President Trump was elected in November.
“They ignored input at every step of the way,” Sgamma said of the prior administration.
Morse said the birds require a variety of habitat types, from areas with green vegetation where young sage grouse can eat safely, to areas with less plant life where the birds can set up elaborate courtship rituals known as leks.
A separate BLM announcement declared the agency had withdrawn protections from 10 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat, which Morse described as an outgrowth of the federal government’s attempt to chip away at various habitats that the birds require.
“You can’t expect a house to function if you cut the living room in half and throw it away,” Morse said.
Erik Molvar, president of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group based in Idaho, described the announcement as a further attempt to place public land in the hands of private interests, alongside the Department of the Interior’s review of national monuments across the Western United States. He added that a potential reduction in protected land would harm mule deer and elk populations in the region, as well as push the sage grouse closer to the brink.
“Sage grouse populations are already heading toward extinction in many parts of the country,” Molvar said.
However, Sgamma said these concerns are overblown. A 2015 report from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimated the minimum breeding population for the species at around 425,000.
“They’re not about to be wiped off the face of the earth,” Sgamma said.
Once the Bureau of Land Management’s notice is sent to the register, members of the public will have 45 days to submit written comments. The date and location of any scoping meetings will be announced at least 15 days in advance, according to the federal agency.
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