The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration moves to weaken protections for this unique American bird

Male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Western greater sage grouse are famous for fierce battles between males in an annual rite to mate with hens. It’s a theatrical show of machismo, chest thumping and razor-sharp clawing over a wide landscape that people across the world travel to watch.

But an equally nasty fight over this dwindled species is happening behind the scenes between humans, and this week it came to a boil. The Trump administration released a plan that would amend Obama-era protections that set aside federal land to keep oil and gas operations from building infrastructure in the birds’ habitat.

The Bureau of Land Management, an arm of the Interior Department, wants to reclassify millions of acres as fit for oil, gas and mineral development, which scientists and conservationists say will continue the fragmentation of the sage grouse, a bird that gains strength in numbers and withers when development breaks groups apart.

Two conservation groups that opposed the Obama plan as not protective enough for the birds filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Interior, saying the proposed change makes a bad situation much worse. Under Obama, the federal government worked with states, ranchers, developers and conservationists over nearly a decade to hammer out a protection plan in 2015 to avoid placing sage grouse on the endangered species list, a move that would have limited cattle grazing and mineral production that employs state residents and puts tax dollars in state coffers.

The Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity, the two plaintiffs, favored listing the species as threatened or endangered and now worry that it is in deep trouble. “It was the conversion of sage grouse habitats to natural gas fields that drove this iconic bird to the brink of extinction in the first place,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the project. “With the continued erosion of limitations on drilling, the next oil and gas boom is likely to spell doom for the large number of remaining grouse populations.”

Western Watersheds and the Center for Biological Diversity’s suit highlighted “a massive proposed development of some 3,500 oil and gas wells within critical sage grouse winter habitat” — the Lance project — as a cause of concern. According to the legal action, the U.S. District Court for Idaho, where it was filed, did not stop the project during earlier hearings in 2012 because the project wasn’t final. Now, the suit said, “BLM is moving forward in approving the Lance project even though it poses severe threats to sage-grouse and other wildlife habitats and populations.”

Wyoming, which has more sage grouse than any of the 11 states in the so-called sagebrush sea of scrub brush where the birds live, is ground zero in the fight. Under Trump, the existing order to keep drilling projects out of sensitive Priority Habitat Management Areas in the state would be struck.

Like other sagebrush states — including Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Colorado — Wyoming would decide where projects on federally leased land should go, as part of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s pledge to make the federal government “a good neighbor” to states that have their own way of doing things.

“We are committed to being a good neighbor and respect the state’s ability to manage wildlife, while recognizing the tremendous investments of effort into improving Greater Sage-Grouse populations over the last decade,” Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. “We look forward to receiving comments on the draft.”

Curiously, conservationists say, the same good-neighbor pledge was not extended to coastal states that opposed Interior’s proposal to lease federal waters to oil and gas companies with hopes of exploring for those resources offshore. The proposal was announced in January over the loud objections of 12 Atlantic and Pacific state governors, attorneys general and a significant part of their legislative bodies.

In sage grouse states, federal managers, who normally draw on the expertise of federal scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would defer to state game offices where there are fewer scientists and less money to support research.

“Our biggest concern is that by allowing each state to set its own standard for mitigation, there may be temptation for some states to favor oil and gas extraction over habitat protection,” Eric Holst, a vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “These are federal lands that belong to all Americans, and federal rules and statutes apply.”

Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead (R), had been uneasy with earlier versions of the Trump administration’s proposal after coming to a shaky truce with the Obama plan three years ago, but he sounded a bit more supportive Wednesday.

“I appreciate the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management,” Mead said in a statement provided by BLM. “They have been available through many meetings and conversations to hear our concerns and work through the process. I will look forward to an opportunity to review these documents and comment, as appropriate, after hearing from people and groups — including the sage grouse implementation team — on their views and thoughts.”