Greater Sage-Grouse Protests

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on July 2, 2015 - 6:50am

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service dumped 14 land use plan amendments with Greater Sage-Grouse (GrSG) amendments on the West on May 28th, giving counties, ranchers, industries, conservation groups, other stakeholders and the general public just 30 days to comb through more than 30,000 pages of very detailed provisions that touch 50 million acres in ten states. 

Leaving aside the arrogance of tying up the West in knots for a month analyzing and responding to plans that affect 98 BLM planning areas and National Forests, the agencies are hurrying to get these plans in place in advance of a September deadline for an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing decision on GrSG.

Western Energy Alliance along with API, the Montana Petroleum Association, North Dakota Petroleum Council and Petroleum Association of Wyoming have protested 12 of the plans. Aside from the Wyoming plans, which generally follow Governor Mead’s Executive Order for GrSG, the oil and natural gas restrictions would make responsible development in sage grouse habitat virtually impossible. There are overlapping restrictions including 30 square miles of No Surface Occupancy (NSO) restrictions around GrSG breeding areas, and 3% caps on surface disturbance. To add insult to injury, several plans exempt transmission lines that carry renewable electricity from the restrictions, but their surface disturbance is included in the calculation of the 3% disturbance caps!

Measures such as a requirement for compensatory mitigation that results in a “net conservation gain” were added in without proper public notice and comment. BLM has a statutory requirement to maximize yields of oil and natural gas while preventing “undue degradation” to the land and other natural resource values like wildlife. The requirement for companies not just to mitigate their impact but to show a net positive gain, which is very difficult to prove, is simply not supported by law.

By rushing in plans that infringe on state wildlife authority while skipping procedural steps that leave them vulnerable to litigation, the agencies cannot possibly handle the protests and issues raised by the Governors in a truly deliberative manner over the next few months. To make matters worse, the September deadline is self-imposed, the result of a closed-door settlement agreement between the Interior Department and two radical environmental groups. Interior Secretary Jewell should request an extension from the court instead of issuing a hasty listing decision. Interior was granted a year extension for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and it could do the same for its close cousin, the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Western Energy Alliance supports sensible legislation that would delay the listing decision and the land use plans in order to give the states more time to show the effectiveness of their GrSG conservation plans. State efforts are better than the one-size-fits-all federal approach encapsulated in these 14 plans because they’re tailored to actual conditions on the ground. Also, states do a better job balancing the economic needs of impacted communities while encouraging private conservation, which is ultimately more effective than heavy-handed ESA policies that are more about controlling land than about species conservation. The example of the Bi-State Sage-Grouse population is instructive: after announcing plans to list the subspecies, Interior was forced to backtrack on that decision after the National Resources Conservation Service reported a precipitous drop in private landowner participation in its related conservation projects. Western Energy Alliance is working to buttress state conservation efforts while helping to advance legislation.