The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2017

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday announced the federal government will relax Obama-era rules designed to protect the imperiled sage grouse, saying the administration will offer states flexibility in how they choose to protect the bird and also will loosen restrictions on energy development in sage grouse habitat.

The move is the latest chapter in an ongoing fight between environmentalists, who have urged stronger protections for sage grouse habitat across the West, and many conservatives and energy industry leaders, who believe the Obama administration’s approach was far too rigid and hampered economic growth.

In a statement Monday, Mr. Zinke said the new protocol will go into effect immediately, and that the new Interior policy effectively supercedes the Obama administration’s rules.

“I’m thankful to all of the DOI team members as well as the bureau staff and the state partners who put in the hard work and time to develop this report,” he said. “I’ve directed Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to begin implementation of the recommendations and to direct the Bureau of Land Management, in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other offices in the Department, to immediately follow through on the short- and long-term recommendations.”

The recommendations include identifying new habitat boundaries for the sage grouse; modifying policies for energy and mineral development in the areas; giving states the power to set sage grouse population targets in protected areas; and other steps.

The updated policy comes after a 2015 plan by the Obama administration designed to protect the sage grouse, an iconic Western bird, and keep it off of the federal endangered species list. The proposal set strict land-use policies across the 11 states that comprise the bird’s habitat.

While the new report offers some specific recommendations, it also lays out a path by which Interior can work with states moving forward, eliminating the top-down federal approach of the Obama administration.

“States have demonstrated, or are confident that as their mechanism(s) become available, that their mitigation approaches are or will be adequate to meet the principles in this mitigation framework while supporting economic development,” Kathleen Benedetto and John Ruhs, the co-leaders of the Interior sage grouse review team, said in a letter to Mr. Zinke.

Environmentalists immediately blasted the move and said it amounted to little more than another giveaway to the energy industry.

“With this order Secretary Zinke has undermined years of collaboration and hard work to preserve the sage grouse and the health of the great outdoors they reflect. Zinke’s order makes it clear that the interests of the oil and gas industries block his vision of the future,” said Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection for the Sierra Club. “As with other reviews under the Trump administration, this order reeks of rollbacks to vital health and environmental safeguards.”

Oil industry leaders, meanwhile, said the report is a major step in the right direction, and that the sage grouse can be fully protected at the same time states move forward with energy production.

They say the sage grouse actually will be better protected by giving states flexibility.

“Removing administrative barriers to conservation is critical to protecting the greater sage grouse without hindering responsible energy development and local economic opportunities,” said Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute. “The record shows that energy development and sage grouse populations can successfully coexist, and the industry has been a leader in working with state governments and agencies to preserve Western habitats, while continuing to meet the needs of America’s energy consumers.