The Trump administration took another step in reopening a conservation controversy over the sage grouse — a chickenlike bird whose fate squabbling environmentalists and Western states alike thought the Obama administration had resolved.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management issued a formal notice of its intent to reconsider a plan to protect the greater sage grouse, a Western bird that makes its home in the sea of sagebrush that stretches from California to Colorado.
The complex conservation plan was born out of negotiations between the Interior Department, the BLM's parent agency, and Western governors, who sought to keep the bird off the endangered species list and avoid the stringent restrictions such a listing would impose on states.
So together, states and the federal government developed 98 sage grouse habitat management plans in 10 states. But the Interior Department, now under new management, considered the Obama-era deal to be out of balance.
To see if they limit jobs and energy development, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked in June for a review of plans to protect the sage grouse. Published in August, a 53-page report concluded that management responsibility for the bird, known for its flamboyant mating dance, should be shifted to the states.
"The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government," BLM acting director Michael D. Nedd said in a statement, adding that the agency was particularly interested in hearing from Western governors.
But some Western governors, including the two co-chairs of the interstate Sage-Grouse Task Force, already have expressed their reservations about the Interior Department's review.
"We understand that you are considering changing the Department's approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states," Govs. Matt Mead (R-Wyo.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said in a May 26 letter to Zinke. "We are concerned that this is not the right decision."
Yet two weeks later, Zinke kicked off the review.
And Mead, at least, is still apprehensive.
"We can't have wholesale changes in wildlife management every four or eight years," he told his state's Casper Star-Tribune this week. "I don't think that is the best way to sustain populations or provide the necessary predictability to industry and business in our states."
On Thursday, environmental groups were even more direct, immediately condemning the decision.
"They don't seem to care what the public or states want," said Nada Culver, a senior counsel at the Wilderness Society, noting that the BLM has acknowledged that more than 350 species of plants and animals depend on the sage grass ecosystem.
"We all like to talk about the funny little bird," she added. "But the bird is not alone here."
Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said part of the apprehension in the West came from fear that rolling back protections could shrink the sage grouse's numbers — and lead to an endangered species listing.
"If they go too far in unraveling the basic framework of the agreement," he said, "it will lead to a listing. That's what everyone was trying to avoid."
Still, industry groups, including the National Mining Association and the Western Energy Alliance, praised Interior's announcement.
"This damaging and unnecessary ban would have barred mining on 10 million acres of mineral-rich lands, further increasing our import dependence," NMA President Hal Quinn said in a statement.