DENVER – Federal land managers issued guidelines last week for restricting energy development, livestock grazing and other activities on public land in the West to protect the greater sage grouse, part of a broad effort to save the bird without resorting to listing it as an endangered species.
The Bureau of Land Management guidelines tell field employees when and how to apply new rules under a sweeping conservation plan announced last year.
That plan is designed to keep the distinctive ground-dwelling bird from being listed as endangered or threatened, which could bring down tougher restrictions and provoke a political backlash against the Endangered Species Act.
But Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, denounced the guidelines and called the sage grouse conservation plan a ploy by the Obama administration to block energy development and commandeer state conservation plans.
“These plans, written as if the sage grouse were listed, are proof it was an underhanded, de facto listing scheme that further oppresses Western states,” Bishop said in a written statement.
Among other things, the new guidelines tell BLM employees who review oil and gas drilling permit applications to start with applications for land outside important sage grouse habitat. Proposals for drilling on the most sensitive land would be processed last.
The guidelines instruct BLM staff to review livestock grazing permits in the most sensitive areas first, to see if new protections are needed.
The guidelines cover about 95,000 square miles of land overseen by the BLM. The U.S. Forest Service and state agencies are drawing up their own plans for land they manage.
Greater sage grouse live in Colorado and 10 other Western states. About 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million.
BLM Director Neil Kornze said the guidelines are designed to be consistent but still give field offices the flexibility to respond to local conditions.
Like every step the government takes on sage grouse, the guidelines prompted criticism from both sides as well as some words of praise.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry group, called the priority system arbitrary and said it ignores work companies have done to protect sage grouse. “This is another example of draconian federal measures that ignore actual on-the-ground measures that states, counties, landowners and companies are already doing to conserve the species,” she said.
The National Wildlife Federation welcomed the rules, calling them an important step toward putting last year’s conservation plan into effect. “Let’s give those plans a chance to work,” said Kate Zimmerman, the group’s public lands specialist.
Other environmental groups said the guidelines were too flexible, too slow to take effect and too focused on making plans instead of taking measures to save the birds.
“The delay and the wiggle room built into these plans is not going to protect the sage grouse from the ongoing impact of livestock grazing,” said Greta Anderson of the Western Watersheds Project.
Erik Molvar of Wild-Earth Guardians said acting on oil and gas permits in non-sensitive areas first doesn’t protect the most critical areas from seeing drilling rigs eventually. “It doesn’t mean that they won’t fully approve all the applications inside the habitat area,” he said.
Ethan Lane of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council said he was still reviewing the guidelines, but he said his groups were shut out of the process of drawing them up.