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Trump administration to review a controversial plan to manage sage grouse

A pair of male sage grouse fight during a mating ritual.

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it will review a massive and controversial federal plan to protect the dwindling population of greater sage grouse in 11 western states.

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke said he assembled a review team comprised of scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study a plan that took many years to develop. The group has 60 days to return with recommendations.

Zinke said the administrative order to review the plan “does not change or alter existing work that has been done.” The purpose is to work more closely with states that deplored the management plan when the Obama administration implemented it two years ago.

The two-month review will take into consideration issues that concern some western politicians: jobs and energy development, some of the very things that scientists say led to the bird’s decline.

The greater sage grouse, a chickenlike bird that nests in a giant habitat covering 11 states called the “sagebrush sea,” exists only in the continental United States. Its mating rituals, where males dance on natural stages called leks to attract females, have drawn attention to the birds and made them a tourist attraction.

But the greater sage grouse population is estimated to have fallen by as much as 90 percent because of industrial mining, oil and gas drilling, and other disturbances in the mineral-rich sage sea in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington. The health of sage grouse is an indication of the health of the sagebrush, which hundreds of animals depend on.

Under the plan, the BLM, which controls millions of acres of public lands with the U.S. Forest Service, will regulate miners, energy developers and ranchers who hold federal leases to work in sagebrush wilderness in 10 states more closely to ensure the survival of the greater sage grouse.

States worked with the Interior Department to persuade Fish and Wildlife to not list the bird as threatened or endangered, and it worked. The agency decided that a listing wasn’t warranted because the work arrested the sage grouse’s decline. But several western governors, including those in Wyoming and Idaho, slammed the plan.

States worked with the BLM, Fish and Wildlife, and conservation groups to take steps to increase sage grouse populations.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert said its regulations on industry and ranchers go too far. He said the Interior Department’s “actions constitute the equivalent of a listing decision outside the normal process” and reiterated that his state was better positioned to manage its sage grouse population — though critics say Utah’s past actions contributed to the bird’s decline.

In remarks Wednesday, Zinke said that anger is still palpable. “When I travel around, there’s a lot of anger of what is perceived, either right or wrong, as heavy-handedness,” he said. “The federal government doesn’t listen. There’s a lot of mistrust. My largest and most important task, quite frankly, is to restore trust. I can tell you a lot of these local communities . . . just don’t think they’ve had a voice, and I don’t disagree with them in many ways.”

Zinke mentioned speaking only to state officials and residents and not to other groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, that played a major role in helping states and the federal government develop the plan. He said states had innovative ideas to build the population of sage grouse, including the control of tree-perching predators that don’t belong in the sage habitat.

“Secretary Zinke should be careful not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to sage grouse conservation,” said Brian Rutledge, the Audubon Society’s conservation policy adviser. “The existing conservation plans were designed with both flexibility and scientific rigor, guaranteeing maximum buy-in from Western communities and the best chance of success for the sage-grouse and more than 350 other species that depend on this landscape.

“This is a review. I’m not sure if the plan is working or not. We’ll have a sense in 60 days on the plan going forward,” he said. “I’m very hopeful and optimistic that the plan will reflect what’s in the best interests of the states, the federal government and the sage grouse. I’m optimistic because I know a lot of work has been done by the states.”

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