Grouse Listing: ‘Waranted but Precluded’
BLM Promises ‘Closer Scrutiny’

By Allison Winter, E&E reporter
Reprinted  with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202/628-6500

The Bureau of Land Management will examine oil and gas drilling permits with “closer scrutiny” to determine if they might affect the imperiled greater sage grouse in light of the new protected status for the iconic Western bird, BLM Director Bob Abbey said today.

The Interior Department today said it would add the bird to a list of “candidates” for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The candidate list is a sort of waiting room for plants and animals that warrant federal protection but are excluded because of other priorities.

The split “warranted but precluded” decision on the sage grouse gives no specific legal protection to the bird, leaving it to states and federal agencies to decide what sort of conservation measures to take for the species. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the department wants to use the latest science and habitat maps to encourage continued energy development, but in areas that will not imperil the sagebrush steppe ecosystem.

“We want to find smart ways of protecting habitat and developing much-needed energy and Western lands,” Salazar said.

Environmentalists, Western politicians and energy developers have feuded for nearly a decade over potential listing of the chicken-sized bird, whose sagebrush habitat also intersects with prime areas for energy development and agriculture across 11 Western states.

Today’s decision left questions for all of the groups, who said possibilities for energy development or conservation would largely depend on whether states or federal agencies take new steps in response to the candidate status.

That was not enough to please Western lawmakers who asked the federal government not to list the bird over concerns it could complicate oil and gas drilling, wind energy, grazing, mining and other energy development.

“If it isn’t one thing it is another with the sage grouse listing,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). “The state of Wyoming, its industries and its citizens have worked tirelessly to protect the sage grouse and avoid an ESA listing. More unpredictability in this ruling means more uncertainty for Wyoming jobs.”

For his part, Abbey said the Bureau of Land Management — which manages more greater sage grouse habitat than any other government agency — would develop new agency guidance to try to plan energy development around sagebrush habitat. Abbey said the grouse would also factor into BLM’s review of oil and gas leases.

“We will be reviewing applications for permits to drill to determine what are the likely consequences moving forward,” Abbey told reporters today. “We will certainly review with a closer scrutiny in areas where we have determined there are sage grouse.”

The Obama administration is currently taking a second look at 52 controversial leases in Utah that the George W. Bush administration had approved in what an interdisciplinary review team classified as a “headlong rush” executed improperly. Abbey today said BLM would likely include new protections for the grouse as part of the National Environmental Policy Act review process on the leases.

Abbey also issued an internal agency guidance today, calling for BLM to expand the use of new science and mapping technologies to improve land-use planning in an effort to conserve grouse habitat and ensure continued energy production and recreational access to federal lands.

“There is plenty of room in the West to have compatible energy development and … habitat for the sage grouse,” said Tom Strickland, Interior’s assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

Sage grouse live in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. More than half of North America’s sage grouse are believed to be in Wyoming.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said her group was “encouraged” that Interior opted not to give full endangered or threatened status to the bird. But the group is worried BLM and other agencies may still keep them from developing inside the “core areas” for the grouse.

“We’re concerned that land managers will nevertheless implement this decision by introducing very restrictive policies that prevent companies from investing and creating high-paying jobs in local communities within core areas,” Sgamma said. “But it appears that Interior plans to balance implementation so that restrictions on energy development do not apply with a broad brush across the entire region.”

In January, BLM issued guidance to its Wyoming field offices asking regulators to limit the density of energy projects to no more than one wind turbine, electricity transmission line or an oil and gas well per square mile inside sage grouse “core areas.” It also calls for restricting all development activities in or around core areas during the bird’s spring nesting season — March 15 through June 30.

The sage grouse finding — which a court ordered the administration to complete by today — results from a lawsuit filed in 2006 by the Idaho group, Western Watersheds Project. A federal judge in Boise, Idaho, ruled in 2007 that political pressure tainted an earlier decision from the Bush administration not to list the sage grouse.

Some environmental groups are concerned the voluntary aspect of the listing might not be enough to protect the bird, since “candidate” status avoids the habitat protections and consultation requirements given to threatened or endangered species.

“FWS got the science right but passed on the opportunity to fully protect this bird today,” said American Bird Conservancy President George Fenwick.
But Ted Toombs, Rocky Mountain regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Center for Conservation Incentives, said the candidate status presents an opportunity for landowners and states to work to get conservation right for the grouse.

“An endangered species listing is no one’s first choice as a tool to fix broken landscapes. It is really a last resort option to keep species from going extinct,” Toombs said. “The first, best option to protect species is for conservationists, farmers, ranchers, energy companies, the recreation industry and other stakeholders to work together on habitat conservation and restoration, so that an endangered species listing can be avoided.”will examine oil and gas drilling permits with “closer scrutiny” to determine if they might affect the imperiled greater sage grouse in light of the new protected status for the iconic Western bird, BLM Director Bob Abbey said today.

Rone Tempest

Rone Tempest was a longtime national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 he was part of a team of reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the massive wildfires in Southern...

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  1. The warranted, but precluded decision may turn out to be very smart, indeed.
    Like the sword of Damocles of yore, this non-decision is going to be hanging over the heads of the energy industry. It will make them as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. Industry is not going to be bold and forceful in seeking to drill or dig anywhere. They’re gonna be nervous and oh-so-careful about infringing on sage-grouse core areas — as they should be.
    The difficult part will be for the feds to keep industry nervous, but not so nervous that we get a big political fight going.

  2. From a political gamesmanship point of view, this “warranted but precluded” designation under the ESA may be a pretty smart move for Interior.
    It puts livestock, coal, oil and gas interests on notice, that the ESA hammer can be dropped anytime the above interests get too pushy or too eager to romp around inside the core areas for sage grouse.
    It also relieves all parties from the onerous work of actually implementing ESA protections for the sage grouse — protections that would be economically and politically painful for all concerned.
    It leaves the status quo intact, but with a not-so-subtle difference. Yes, livestock and energy interests can continue to operate, but they’re gonna have to be cautious and exercise considerable self-restraint. It also encourages all the public/private partnerships to continue to work on sage grouse conservation and habitat enhancements.
    That caution and self-restraint may be uncomfortable, but would be nothing compared to full-fledged ESA restraints.
    This warranted but precluded approach has something for everyone. The only ones who will be bitterly disappointed will be the all-out developers and the shut-em-down enviros.
    Hmmmmm. This could be crazy enough to work.