Zinke’s sage-grouse review signals shifting influences in Washington

Eric Holst

As the comment period for the proposed changes to federal sage-grouse plans drew to a close last week, there is evidence that the administration may be ignoring a majority of voices across the West to cater exclusively to a few players in the oil and gas sector.

A recently leaked letter [PDF] to the U.S Department of the Interior from the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade and lobbying group, shows how closely the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed changes to protections for the imperiled bird align with WEA’s requests.

It is an affront to the ranchers, landowners, scientists, federal agency staff, state and local policymakers and countless other stakeholders who, over the course of many years, forged the sage-grouse recovery plans.

Importantly, this demonstrates how dramatically influence has shifted in Washington over the past year – and away from Western states.

Westerners speak out against Zinke’s plan

Yet, collaboration remains possible.

Several oil, gas and mining companies last week joined a diverse coalition of Wyoming groups, urging [PDF] the BLM to respect the state’s sage-grouse conservation plan and ensure the bird gets sufficient protection.

Across the West, sportsmen, ranchers and landowners are also weighing in.

The outcry over Zinke’s move underscores that a majority of Americans want to follow what the science tells us and give the existing sage-grouse plans room to work. It should signal to the interior secretary and other administrative leaders that they need to listen to the voices of the many, and not the few.

“Give these plans a chance” 

“As hunters we believe the best course forward is to give these plans a chance,” wrote Brian Brooks, an Idaho hunter, in an opinion piece in his local newspaper. “The best way to improve the health of wildlife is to improve the health of their habitat, the same habitat that literally fuels our big game species.”

Tom Sharp, an Oregon rancher and landowner, cautioned that changing or scrapping the existing sage-grouse plans could ultimately lead to the bird getting listed as an endangered species.

“We are walking somewhat of a fine line here – there’s a balance here,” he wrote. “Any plan amendments that we make going forward should follow the science.”

And Mike Penfold, a former BLM state director for Montana, the Dakotas and Alaska, noted that Zinke’s review makes the path forward less clear for industry and landowners.

“In the 50 years that I’ve been involved in land management discussion, I can say that I’ve never seen the same type of collaboration amongst disparate interests – from ranchers to sportsmen and women to those in the oil and gas industry,” Penfold wrote. “No sense in taking what is arguably the gold standard for conservation collaboration and rip it apart now.”

It’s not too late

There is still an opportunity for Secretary Zinke to come down on the right side of history. The proposed changes to the federal sage-grouse plans are just that: They are proposed, but not yet law.

With the closing of the public comment period, Secretary Zinke now has the opportunity to listen to Americans who urge his department to stay the course on the sage-grouse, rather than catering to a group of oil and gas companies with short-term economic interests.

He can put science over politics, keeping the best policy in place to avoid a future Endangered Species Act listing for the bird – and show that Washington is working for the American public.

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