BILLINGS, Mont. – Before the applause faded from the U.S. government’s announcement that there would be no endangered-species protections for the greater sage grouse, the criticism began over wide-reaching federal conservation plans meant to protect the bird’s habitat across 11 Western states.
The announcement marks the end of a five-year controversial effort to save the bird, but officials say the moment only marks the “end of the beginning.” The land-use plans were released Tuesday after Jewell said additional federal protections weren’t needed for the ground-dwelling bird that’s seen its habitat shrink due to oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activity.
“What we are witnessing is a glimpse into the future of the West,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, surrounded by four Western governors, other federal officials and dozens in attendance for the nearly hour-and-a-half news conference at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City.
While the announcement was filled with pomp and circumstance, some quickly questioned the longevity and security of the conservation effort. It features new land use plans that focus on habitat conservation. Fears have been expressed that sweeping land use plans would undermine state conservation efforts and burden ranchers and energy companies.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans outline measures to help sage grouse across 67 million acres of public lands throughout the West, including 12 million acres of prime habitat where strict limits on oil and gas limits will be enforced.
Federal lands make up more than half the bird’s habitat.
Some officials said the new BLM conservation plans were overly restrictive, particularly with oil and gas drilling. Their next step is to try to bring those federal conservation plans in line with their own.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, was among the first to weigh in.
“While the ‘not warranted’ decision is welcome, the implementation of equally oppressive land use plans, which do nothing to improve on the work already being done locally to preserve the grouse, still leaves Colorado and other Western communities in a worrisome situation,” said Tipton.
“This doesn’t end the discussion of where we’re going to be,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said after Jewell’s announcement.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who attended the news conference, called for celebration.
“It’s a very popular thing right now to take punches at our federal government, especially in the West, but when we have an opportunity where they have helped bring everyone together and create something that really is meaningful, then we should celebrate what good partners they can be, and hopefully inspire them to continue to be great partners,” he said.
Colorado last Thursday requested recognition by federal agencies to establish the Colorado Habitat Exchange. Under the plan, ranchers are encouraged to participate in voluntary conservation efforts. The program would offer financial incentives to create, maintain and improve habitat. Landowners would earn conservation credits, which could be sold to industry stakeholders to compensate for development.
In Wyoming, where the biggest concentrations of sage grouse are found, the plans would limit disruptions like oil and gas drilling as far as six-tenths of a mile away from any sage-grouse breeding area.
Mines and oil and gas drilling pads would need to be spaced no closer than every square mile. Also, drilling would be prohibited for three and a half months each spring during breeding season.
Those restrictions apply only to designated “priority habitat” for the birds, not everywhere they are found. And they are far more permissive than the three-mile limit on breeding sites that scientists recommended.
Oil and gas activity can bring breeding to a halt if it gets too close to the birds, said Steve Holmer, a senior policy adviser with the American Bird Conservancy.
States and the BLM came up with their own proposals on how to protect sage grouse habitat on the lands they manage. The resulting plans are credited with staving off the Endangered Species Act protections that state officials feared would cause even greater harm to the economies across the 257,000-square-mile region where the chicken-sized bird ranges.
“We think the plans need to be given a chance to work,” Holmer said, adding that provisions in the documents allow for future changes if grouse numbers continue their long-term decline.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America predicted the land-use plans will harm small oil and gas producers in particular.
“Today’s decision will put more restrictions on our energy producers, making it more costly to operate and harder to provide the benefits of abundant, affordable energy to American families,” said Dan Naatz, IPAA senior vice president of government relations and political affairs.
Some environmental groups also were critical of the BLM land-use plans, but for the opposite reason. Erik Molvar with the WildEarth Guardians said the planning effort began with promise, but the exceptions, modifications and waivers they allow mean the protections could evaporate.
“What seems to be coming out the other end of the sausage grinder is a weak collection of compromises that will not and cannot conserve the species,” Molvar said.
For states like Montana, where 29 percent of sage grouse habitat is under federal management, the problem is that the BLM plans set different standards from their own conservation plans. That includes differences in buffer zone distances and caps on the total amount of land that can be disturbed in prime sage grouse habitat.
The federal plans also are far more restrictive in new leases for oil and gas sites in primary sage grouse habitat.
Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said state officials will pressure the BLM to make their management plans more consistent with Montana’s.
Those restrictions haven’t generated the same response in Wyoming as they have in Montana.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said he was satisfied with how the state’s conservation plan will work with the federal plans. Wyoming officials worked with their federal counterparts for much of the last decade to find a mutually agreeable approach to sage grouse.
“We think we got it in a good place now,” Mead said.
By Peter Marcus, of the Durango Herald, contributed to this article.