CHEYENNE, Wyo., May 7 (UPI) -- Four years after the United States hailed reduced threats to the greater sage grouse in the West as the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history, government and conservation groups are in a tug of war.
On one side is the Trump administration, with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt approving new land-management plans. On the other are conservation groups suing to stop the plans over concerns they will weaken sage grouse protections and open the lands to uses such as oil and gas drilling that could destroy sage grouse habitat in seven states: Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.
The states of Idaho and Utah have intervened on the side of the federal government.
"The Trump plans pretty much eliminate any of the required protections and even some of the goal statements and objectives that were in the Obama plans to help move sage grouse habitat toward a healthy state and support a sage grouse recovery," said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, which with the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Prairie Hills Audubon Society filed a motion April 19 seeking an injunction of the new plans.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew the sage grouse from consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act, crediting an "unprecedented, landscape-scale conservation effort" with its decision that the bird does not face extinction despite long-term population declines.
The large, ground-dwelling birds are distinctive for their mating rituals, in which the males strut their plumage and inflate bright yellow air sacks on their breasts.
The controversy involves about 90 individual land-use plans in states across the West that address such uses as mining, drilling and agriculture, along with protections for sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems. The latest court filing is a continuation of legal challenges started over land-management plans adopted under the Obama administration in 2015.
Amendments to those plans have drawn mixed reactions, with some saying they weaken or eliminate sage grouse protections and others saying they clarify and bring federal plans more closely in line with state plans.
Sage grouse plans and the changes to them vary by state. Among the most concerning to Molvar were the elimination of prioritization of development outside of priority habitats and the elimination of a 7-inch grass height objective for livestock grazing.
Bob Budd, chairman of the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team, called the recent amendments "pretty straightforward." The team was formed in 2007 by then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal and developed the state's Sage Grouse Executive Order, which became the model for the federal land-use plans in Wyoming.
"We had seven areas that we needed to get clarified and corrected and we did that," Budd said of the new land-management plans, noting that the changes included such things as eliminating noise restrictions and placing mitigation assessment under state authority. "It didn't change our executive order. It did not change how we manage for the bird. It didn't change anything other than clarifying those areas where there was a lack of clarity."
Wyoming was the first state to implement a sage grouse plan and has the largest population of the birds, estimated to include about 35 percent to 40 percent of all sage grouse. Efforts to develop those plans are credited with keeping the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Sage grouse habitat and populations are a patchwork across the West, with some areas declining and others remaining steady, said David Dahlgren, assistant professor in Utah State University's Wildland Resources Department. He said a complex variety of factors affect the birds.
"The truth is no one thing is going to save the sage grouse," he said. "So, given that, I think we have to talk in scale. What matters to sage grouse is they're a landscape species, meaning that they need large intact landscapes of sagebrush habitat if they're going to persist."
Along with concerns about the impact of industry and agriculture on ecosystems, sage grouse face such threats as wildfire, climate change and West Nile virus.
"I'm concerned overall," Dahlgren said. "I don't think there's a sage grouse biologist or anyone who works closely with sage grouse who isn't concerned. There's just so much risk, even with our intact populations. ... But, having said that I'm concerned, I think that we need to remember that we have stable populations, we have large intact landscapes still left, and that's the reason for our priority areas. We need to use our resources to make sure those stay in place while then after that looking at our more at-risk situations."
Dahlgren is involved with a project to move sage grouse from a strong population in Wyoming to a struggling population in North Dakota. Earlier this month, the project moved 20 male sage grouse from an area north of Rawlins, Wyo., to southwest North Dakota. Officials will return in June or July to move as many as 10 hens with their chicks. This is the third year for the project, and Dahlgren said that while it's still too early to know the outcome, "it seems like the North Dakota population is starting to turn around."
"The common misconception is that this species is doomed," Budd said. "I don't adhere to that at all. I think the species is doing well."
Budd said SGIT has two goals: to conserve the sage grouse and its habitat to preclude the need for it to be listed under the Endangered Species Act and to maintain economic opportunity in the state. The effort includes representatives from state and federal agencies, agriculture, industry, conservation, county commissioners and others who created a blueprint for conservation efforts across the West.
"It was an effort by literally thousands of Westerners to put together a compromise plan, none of us totally happy with it, but all of us able to live with it and hopefully being able to maintain the ecosystem and the bird in spite of all of the challenges," said Brian Rutledge, director of the Audubon Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative and a member of the SGIT.
He said that under the Trump administration the plans were "manhandled to the point where they achieved none of the objectives that were set out to maintain."
Among the changes he objects to is shifting responsibility for mitigating damage to states and undermining regulatory certainty.
"The next step for me is police work, I'm afraid," Rutledge said. "We're gonna have to watch every move these guys make."
He also is concerned about the possible impact on future collaborations.
While some applaud Wyoming's conservation efforts, not everyone is satisfied with this approach. Molvar said that the results amounted to political compromises driven by industry, and that the Wyoming federal plan has the weakest protections of any of the sage grouse plans.
"The Trump plan amendments basically throw away what sage grouse conservation measures survived that compromise under Obama," he said.
Paul Ulrich, director of Government and Regulatory Affairs for Jonah Energy, and a member of the SGIT, said he doesn't think the recent amendments will have any discernible impact on Wyoming's approach.
"Conservation and development are not mutually exclusive," he said. "We've proven that in Wyoming. It's my personal philosophy. I'm not only a member of the oil and gas industry, I'm also on the board of trustees of the Nature Conservancy. They're not mutually exclusive, and if we're going to continue to tackle large resource issues, we have to have a wider understanding of that and have that understanding applied. We can achieve a balance. It's not all or nothing."