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Sec. Zinke Proposes Changes To Sage Grouse Conservation Plans

Sage grouse.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Region (PD)
Sage grouse.

The federal government’s most recent sage grouse public comment period wrapped up Thursday.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proposed tweaking conservation plans that were hammered out back in 2015. That’s unnerved some of the people and groups who were involved in that process.

John Bradley says 2015’s sage grouse agreement was a hard-won compromise that kept the bird off the endangered species list.

Bradley, a Montana Wildlife Federation field rep, asserts that the Trump administration is now putting sage grouse and its habitat at risk.

“We just want Interior to give the plans a chance to work," he says. "We want them to honor the deal we all made three years ago. The question is really now, are they finally going to listen to us?”

Secretary Zinke has proposed amending protections afforded the birds under the 2015 agreement.

But The Wilderness Society’s Nada Culver worries the proposal could weaken, or completely remove protections from activities like energy development.

If Interior gets its way, Culver says environmentalists may push to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

“Based on the way that these plans are being conducted, without sufficient opportunities for public input, without sufficient evaluation of environmental pacts, of alternatives to the approach that is being railroaded through; without looking at the best available science, we may very well see legal challenges as well,” Culver says.

Family Farm Alliance President Pat O’Toole, says an endangered species listing – and the accompanying regulations that come with that status – would do the ag industry no favors.

He supports the collaborative process that led to 2015’s sage grouse agreement.

“From my perspective, throwing the whole question of sage grouse into a litigation frenzy is actually the very worst-case scenario we could imagine," O'Toole says. "The other side of it is there is such a great set of experiences that people have had working together, I don’t think you want to break that trust.”

Proposed BLM oil and gas lease sales in sage grouse habitat have prompted several recent lawsuits in Idaho and Montana.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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