Zinke’s Plans Could Undermine the Sage-Grouse Conservation Strategy and Endangered Species Act

A male sage-grouse displays for females during their mating ritual at dawn in Rock Springs, Wyoming, May 2018.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s keynote address at the Western Governors’ Association summer meeting slated for Tuesday, June 26, invites Westerners and conservationists everywhere to revisit his decision to review the Obama-era sage-grouse plans. While Zinke will likely emphasize his conservation vision in his speech, it is apparent that reopening the plans threatens to undermine one of the most successful wildlife conservation efforts in recent memory. Zinke’s announcement to reopen the plans was met with opposition by most Western governors who were part of the historic collaboration to conserve the greater sage-grouse and prevent the need to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Zinke’s actions put both the iconic grouse and the ESA at risk.

In September 2015, in a victory for multistakeholder collaboration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials determined that the state-federal, science-based, collaborative effort to conserve the remaining range of the sage-grouse would prevent the need to add it to the list of threatened and endangered species. A few months after taking office, Secretary Zinke signed an order to reopen the conservation plan. Since then, Govs. Matt Mead (R-WY) and John Hickenlooper (D-CO) have led the charge in trying to convince Secretary Zinke that reopening the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans is not warranted. At the same time, conservation groups have sued over oil and gas development in sage-grouse habitat. Secretary Zinke rejected the governors’ counsel and released in May six draft environmental impact statements to revise several of the BLM sage-grouse plans.

Zinke’s strategy ignores the best available science

Sage-grouse are not bound by political boundaries and frequently cross state lines, so management must focus on maintaining high-quality habitat across the grouse’s remaining range. A recent study by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the University of Waterloo in Ontario emphasized protecting areas with high concentrations of sage-grouse—referred to as hubs—in north-central Montana, southern Wyoming, northeastern Colorado, northwestern Utah, and central Idaho. The joint study also emphasized the need to protect and restore habitats connecting these hubs, referring to these connections as spokes.

Not surprisingly, these hubs largely coincide with several areas identified as Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs) in the 2015 sage-grouse plans. SFAs were intended to focus conservation efforts where they matter most; no surface disturbance was to occur there, and all such areas were recommended for withdrawal from future mining. Then-USFWS Director Dan Ashe wrote, “Strong, durable, and meaningful protection of federally administered lands in these areas will provide additional certainty and help obtain confidence for long-term sage-grouse persistence.”

Despite this direction, Secretary Zinke eliminated the SFAs from the plans and reopened these areas for mining, allowing surface disturbance in clear conflict with scientific findings.

A USGS review of the research associated with the impact of disturbance on sage-grouse led to the inclusion of buffers in the original plans to protect sage-grouse breeding locations—known as leks—from the impacts of activities such as oil and gas drilling. The BLM’s new plans would limit or eliminate the requirement for these buffers in key portions of the bird’s habitat, leaving important breeding areas vulnerable.

Utah’s proposed new plan would eliminate entirely the need to protect any general sage-grouse habitat in the state. Yet, the state-federal Conservation Objectives Team convened to provide a science-based foundation for the Obama-era effort to conserve the grouse, reviewed the existing sage-grouse literature, and determined that maintaining general habitat was important for connectivity among areas of priority habitat.

Zinke eliminates tools managers can use to restore habitat

Where development affects habitat, the Obama-era plans required mitigation consistent with USFWS guidance to avoid, minimize, and restore disturbed landscapes. These measures create a process to manage the effects of habitat loss and restore habitat where possible, as well as can help increase investment in conservation.

Despite a BLM policy to mitigate public land impacts that had been in place for more than a decade, the Trump administration rejected the concept. At last summer’s Western Governors’ Association meeting, Secretary Zinke referred to mitigation as “un-American” and “extortion”—so this decision is no surprise.

Secretary Zinke has revealed very little about what led him to this conclusion, but mitigation is widely acknowledged as an important—and rapidly expanding—tool for environmental restoration, especially on private and multiple-use lands. The USFWS and other agencies managing wildlife had worked to adapt their policies to support this tool prior to Zinke’s decision. As a result, human-caused habitat losses in the “most threatened ecosystem in North America” will continue, and agencies will find it more challenging to keep up.

Zinke’s emphasis on energy dominance unnecessarily undermines his multiple-use mandate

Secretary Zinke also elected to ignore existing BLM guidance to minimize the limited conflicts between sage-grouse habitat and oil and gas development on public lands. The guidance encouraged the BLM to prioritize future oil and gas leasing and development outside of areas of priority habitat. A 2017 study, conducted by an oil and gas consulting firm called West Inc., indicates that the majority of federal lands and minerals within priority habitat management areas (PHMAs)—79 percent—have zero to low potential for oil and gas. The majority of federal lands and minerals identified as assumed medium or high development potential for oil and gas are located outside of the PHMAs.

Instead, Secretary Zinke has directed the BLM to accelerate oil and gas leasing across public lands despite the fact that public land lease purchases and oil and gas production are down. A recently released Wilderness Society study mapping BLM oil and gas leases indicated that the BLM’s “proposed leases risk the survival of the [sage-grouse] habitat and its species.”

This decision, as well as Zinke’s previously announced decision to eliminate SFAs and open them up to hard-rock mining, will unnecessarily increase conflict between sage-grouse conservation and resource extraction in the most important grouse habitat areas.

Zinke’s plans simultaneously attack the ESA

Interior Secretary Zinke’s direction reverses current science-based policy and overlooks the advice of many Western governors. In fact, it leads one to question if the secretary’s real goal is to foment controversy associated with sage-grouse conservation and provide justification for changes to the ESA.

To that end, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced late last year its intent to propose new rules to implement the ESA. These include changes to the protections afforded to threatened species and their habitats and rules that guide how agencies consult with the USFWS.

If Secretary Zinke manages to cripple the hard-won collaborative sage-grouse plan, it is likely that the bird’s population will decline before it’s due for listing reassessment under the ESA in 2020. By that time, Zinke and his allies in Congress may be able to damage the decades-old bedrock environmental law that has protected 99 percent of species under its care from going extinct. Unless Secretary Zinke listens to the science, federal land managers who uphold the multiple-use mandate, and conservationists, he could put the greater sage-grouse, an iconic Western species, on a path to extinction.

Jim Lyons is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.