A male greater sage grouse struts at a lek in Sublette County in 2015. Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have written Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that changes to widespread federal conservation plans are not needed. (Leine Stikkel)

(Originally published by E&E News.)

The bipartisan governors of Wyoming and Colorado are urging Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to consult with states before undertaking any major changes to federal greater sage grouse plans, arguing that “wholesale changes” to the Obama-era conservation blueprint “are likely not necessary at this time.”

The brief letter from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) comes as sources say Zinke is preparing to issue a secretarial order establishing a team led by officials with the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a review of the federal grouse plans and to possibly recommend significant changes to how the birds are managed.

“We understand that you are considering changing the department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states. We are concerned that this is not the right decision,” wrote the governors, who are co-chairmen of a federal-state sage grouse task force that worked to develop the grouse plans.

The federal plans, finalized in September 2015, amended 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans to incorporate grouse protection measures across nearly 70 million acres of federal land in 10 Western states.

“We also understand that you are considering directing the Bureau of Land Management to change the land use plans that were amended to address sage-grouse,” the letter says.

“The Task Force as a group and the sage-grouse states individually were directly involved in the development of those plan amendments,” they added. “The states understand the provisions that need improvement and can help the department develop ways to target those problematic provisions. Wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time.”

Heather Swift, an Interior spokeswoman, did not deny that a secretarial order could be issued as early as this week. “At this time we have nothing new to announce,” she said in an emailed statement to E&E News.

But the section in the governors’ letter addressing the BLM changes to the plans appears to reference the pending secretarial order.

Mead, Hickenlooper and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) met with Zinke last month to “discuss important sage-grouse issues,” according to the governors’ letter.

The goal of the planned review, according to sources with knowledge of the process, would be to identify where the plans create a “burden” to resource development on federal lands and to amend them to align them with the multiple-use mandate on BLM and Forest Service lands.

The goal would also be to align the federal plans with state grouse protection plans and to possibly set ironclad grouse population levels in each state that must be met, sources said.

State leaders, particularly in Idaho and Utah, have argued they have protection plans in place that are more than sufficient to protect the bird and that the federal plans are unnecessarily burdensome.

Swift said in her emailed statement that Interior is committed to working with the states.

“Secretary Zinke has made clear his commitment to working with, rather than against, local communities and being a good neighbor to private landowners,” she said. “The department is looking forward to working with state and local partners to ensure we are striking a true balance between both conservation and responsible multiple use of our public lands.”

Even without a secretarial order, the Trump administration has been clear about its view of the grouse plans.

Zinke for months has said that big changes to the grouse plans were coming.

More importantly, BLM’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal calls for cutting $11.5 million from the “Sagebrush Conservation Implementation Strategy” and eliminating 59 full-time-equivalent positions from BLM’s Wildlife Management program, which is responsible for implementing the federal greater sage grouse conservation plans (Greenwire, May 25).

Proponents of the Obama-era grouse blueprint have long feared that the federal plans would be altered or abandoned (Greenwire, Feb. 23).

President Trump has called on Interior to discard regulations deemed “burdensome” to energy development, signaling that the plans may undergo significant changes in how they are carried out — if they are ever fully implemented.

But critics say that altering the plans, even in subtle ways, could lead to additional lawsuits from conservation groups to force the Trump administration to carry out the already approved mandates.

The federal plans were a key factor in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision two years ago not to list the grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Interior’s fiscal 2018 budget request includes a section that would prohibit the secretary from using any appropriated funds to write a rule listing the grouse for ESA protection.

(Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.)

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