The Obama administration downplayed the limits on oil drilling and renewable energy in its plan to preserve millions of acres of U.S. public land for a flamboyant bird at risk of going extinct.
With a deadline of the end of September to decide if the greater sage-grouse is endangered, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Thursday said among steps taken by the Bureau of Land Management is putting some key “focal areas” for the bird off limits to drilling, mining or wind projects. Even with the ban, the agency said land suitable for energy production isn’t the prime grouse habitat, and producers could drill horizontally to tap reservoirs now off limits on the surface.
“We have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy,” Jewell said in a statement from Cheyenne, Wyoming. “We are laying important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West.”
Long a totem of the American West, the greater sage-grouse has been at the center of one of the nation’s biggest conservation disputes, pitting energy and development interests against naturalists in lawsuits and lobbying campaigns. A decision on its status would be the most far-reaching since the U.S. protected the northern spotted owl, disrupting logging communities in Oregon in the 1990s.
“We’ve seen this story before with what the federal government did in Oregon with the spotted owl,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers, said before the announcement. “We believe the science doesn’t justify these restrictions.”
The grouse draws tourists to its nesting grounds each spring to watch males puff up their flashy yellow and white chests and fan spiky brown tail feathers to lure females. Its population once numbered in the millions, but since 1985 has shrunk 30 percent to no more than than 500,000 birds, and maybe less than half that.
The sagebrush habitat supports $1 billion in economic activity from outdoor recreation, according to the Interior Department.
The 14 plans issued Thursday by BLM must be reviewed by the states and are open for a public protest period before being finalized later this year. They will set the benchmark for how the federal government will address the threats to the species.
They would ban drilling and mining on some of the most pristine areas, and near the birds’ leks, or the areas where they congregate during mating season. Other areas would get increased scrutiny before roads or other projects are approved.
It’s not clear if the plans would do enough to avoid an endangered finding by another unit of the Interior Department, the Fish & Wildlife Service. Also, the department didn’t immediately release details on how many acres would be entirely off limits to drilling or renewable projects, and how many would not be in those “focal areas” but still face increased scrutiny from regulators.
In 2010, the wildlife service said that listing the grouse as endangered was “warranted, but precluded” by the need to address other more urgent priorities. The department then set up a working group led by Wyoming and Colorado that sought to preserve enough sagebrush so the chicken-sized bird could be kept off the government’s list that comes with tougher restrictions.
Now some environmentalists say they are not sure BLM’s protections will be enough to ensure the bird’s protection.
“It certainly seems like a step in a positive direction, but there are parts of the range where the population is in free fall,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist at WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group. “The levels of protection may not be enough.”
Other groups praised the plan, calling it an unprecedented effort to tackle not just the threats to one bird, but wider problems across the Western landscape.
“The greater sage-grouse conservation plan is a huge step in the right direction that holds out the promise to save not only this beautiful bird but also hundreds of other species, while protecting some of America’s most precious and scenic lands,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.