Chest-Puffing Grouse to Test Trump’s Conservation Approach

  • Obama tees up ban on new hard-rock mining on 10 million acres
  • Decision affecting six states will rest with president-elect

A greater sage grouse.

Photographer: Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images

The Obama administration teed up plans to block hard-rock mining on as many as 10 million acres in the western U.S. to protect the greater sage grouse, setting up a test for Donald Trump on how he will weigh business interests and the environment.

The final decision about whether to block activity under new mining claims in sagebrush territory across six western states rests with the president-elect, but may be influenced by the draft environmental analysis and proposal the U.S. Interior Department issued Thursday.

The Obama administration determined in 2015 that the greater sage grouse didn’t warrant listing as an endangered species, yet unveiled land-use plans meant to protect the prickly sagebrush plants seen as critical to the survival of the chicken-like bird known for its colorful courtship ritual. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management also proposed a potentially two-decade ban on new mineral exploration and mining claims in the “sagebrush focal areas” while it studied the environmental effects of the activity.  

As part of that review, the bureau studied its original proposal as well as several others, including a suggestion from Nevada to swap in some 388,000 acres of sagebrush territory in exchange for removing 488,000 acres believed to be rich in minerals. The agency also analyzed a plan to remove 539,000 acres with at least moderate mineral potential in Idaho and an approach that would keep most areas open to mining. The proposals cover land in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

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Because it’s not yet final, the bureau’s proposal is less durable than other recent Obama administration moves to restrict resource development on public lands -- including a decision last week to block new oil and gas drilling on more than 100 million acres in the U.S. Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean, and the creation Wednesday of two new national monuments.

The Interior Department can’t decide what to do about the proposed mining restrictions, including whether to implement any of them, until after a public comment period set to run through March 30. If the Trump administration decides to follow through with any of the mineral withdrawal proposals, future exploration or extraction operations would still be allowed under valid pre-existing claims.

It’s unclear how Trump might approach the issue or how it would be viewed by his Interior Secretary nominee, Ryan Zinke, a hunter and first-term congressman from Montana.

The greater sage grouse is a flamboyant fowl known for its showy mating rituals, which involve the male puffing out its chest, spreading its spiky brown tail feathers, and strutting around in a bid to entice females. The bird is viewed as an umbrella species whose health acts as an indicator for other animals that depend on similar habitat.

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