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Trump Administration Opens Western Lands to Energy Development, Strips Sage Grouse Protections

Greater sage-grouse.
Greater sage-grouse.

The Trump Administration today finalized plans that will open millions of acres in the West to oil and gas development and strip protections for a struggling greater sage-grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management’s plan removes heightened protections for the core habitat of the chicken-sized bird known for its distinctive mating dance that lives in 11 western states, including Montana.

Those protections emerged from a years-long collaborative process between state and federal government, industry and scientists. The BLM is the largest landowner of sage grouse habitat.

"They have reneged on their management responsibility," says Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society.

Rutledge says more than 350 other species rely on sagebrush ecosystems, and sagebrush plays a key role in western watersheds.

"The biggest thing that’s happened here is we have evacuated science from what was a science-based plan," Rutledge says.

The BLM’s move alters protections in seven states, but not directly in Montana. Historically, millions of grouse strutted through the country’s sage fields. Now, that number’s down to between 200,000 and 500,000. Montana’s home to nearly 20 percent of the birds that remain.

Carolyn Sime, sage grouse habitat conservation program manager for Montana DNRC, says here, sage grouse habitat is unique compared to other parts of the west.

"Most of our habitat for sage grouse are in private ownership. A relatively smaller percentage are held and managed by Bureau of Land Management, Montana state trust lands and the Forest Service," she says.

About 30 percent of Montana’s sage grouse habitat is on federal land. Sime says the species faces threats from ecosystem destruction and fragmentation that could come from things like development and drilling, but also natural processes like wildfire.

We reached out to the Montana Petroleum Council for comment on this story, but did not receive a response.

The government’s proposal is expected to face a lengthy battle in court.

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer who focuses on wildlife, natural resources, and the environment. He was editor on the podcasts Shared State and Fireline, and producer on the podcasts Threshold and Richest Hill.
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