Photo by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

When federal land-management agencies pulled out of an inter-agency agreement to protect sage-grouse habitat in Utah in September, the federal Treasury picked up an additional $15,000 from energy companies for public-land leases.

The federal government may have to spend many times that amount on legal actions related to the dissolution of the land management agreement, say conservationists. And outdoor-business industry leaders say the decision to abandon the agreement will also take money out of the pockets of local businesses that cater to hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The public land that the Department of Interior opened to private fossil fuel development is in Juab County, Utah, in prime sage-grouse habitat. The bird’s population is dwindling, but federal agencies worked with conservation groups to keep the bird off the endangered species list through a widely-celebrated collaborative conservation initiative. The agreement was hailed as a common-sense approach that protects the bird without having to list it as endangered, which triggers stricter rules, including a hunting ban.

Interior’s Bureau Land of Management (BLM) pulled out of the agreement in September and announced a nine-parcel auction for oil and gas exploration on BLM land in Utah’s West Desert. Only three of the public land offers attracted bids, and those bids just met the minimum price of $2 an acre.

Total BLM proceeds from the lease were $14,837. The BLM rationale for the sale was stated as “keeping with the administration’s goals of promoting America’s energy independence.”

Conservationists and businesses leaders say there is much more at stake with potential damage to the outdoor recreation industry in Utah. Similar public land leases are likely to continue in sage grouse habitat across the West, according to Interior Department officials who briefed the New York Times. Internal staff reported that under Trump Administration appointee Ryan Zinke, the department intends “to publish a formal notice of intent to amend 98 sage grouse habitat management plans across 10 states.”

“Together, ranchers, business owners, local elected officials and hunters – essentially a who’s who of the West – spent years developing collaborative, individually tailored sage grouse conservation plans,” wrote Backcountry Hunters and Angler (BHA) Conservation Director John Gale. “The plans maintain traditional uses of the landscapes, including grazing and some development, while also upholding public lands hunting and fishing. And they played a key role in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision two years ago not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Secretary Zinke’s proposed changes would be devastating,” a statement from the Western Values Project said. “It would harm the $1 billion outdoor recreation economy on sage-grouse habitat and endanger not just the sage-grouse, but the other iconic species like mule deer, elk, and pronghorn that depend on a health sagebrush ecosystem.

As part of the land-management agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a recommendation to add the sage grouse to the endangered species list in return for a partnership agreement that they said “significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat.”

The BLM’s decision to allow energy-development leases with sage-grouse habitat alters that agreement. That troubles other conservation groups.

“It’s increasingly clear that Secretary Zinke doesn’t have a sense of the balance, the compromise, the approach needed to effectively manage public lands,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities. “It really seems like a systematic effort to blow up years of collaboration and cooperation.”

Prentice-Dunn also pointed to recent comments from Interior Secretary Zinke about the purpose of public land. In a speech as part of National Clean Energy Week, Zinke said, “If you are operating on public land, extraction is going to be in the best public interest.”

Many conservation groups, including those involved in the multiple-year negotiations to create the sage grouse habitat agreement, noted the BLM’s reversal on using energy leases for the grouse habitat occurred on the two-year anniversary of the original sage grouse conservation agreement.

“These iconic species define the Western landscape and our days afield,” added the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Ed Arnett. “Meanwhile, the extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities in sagebrush country help drive spending in our local communities, supporting the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy and more than 7.5 million jobs. These pursuits mean big business, and the places where we are free to hunt and fish define us as Americans.”

As previously reported in the Daily Yonder, private landowners, environmentalists, energy companies, and government agencies worked cooperatively to negotiate an agreement that prevented the grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The sage grouse effort involves the Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Forest Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, state agencies, private landowners, and numerous non-governmental partners. Listing the grouse as endangered would trigger a more stringent set of regulations that limit landowner and public agency choices and could trigger litigation.

The sagebrush steppe is a broad region of the Intermountain West characterized by broad open grasslands, cattle ranches and wildlife habitat. Sage grouse currently reside in 186 million acres in parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, and North Dakota, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Three-quarters of the grouse inhabit just 27% of the area. Sage grouse conservation efforts focus on the riparian habitat that is most important to the species, as well as to preserving access to sagebrush for grouse diet.

Earlier this summer, BHA released a report saying the previously negotiated cooperative management plan does not place many restrictions on energy development.

“Energy development is an appropriate and necessary use of our public lands, particularly in the West, yet it must be pursued responsibly and in the right places,” BHA Conservation Director John Gale wrote in a statement. “Our report shows that the vast majority of greater sage grouse habitat is ill-suited to energy development of any kind, now or in the future – and that more than three-quarters of areas potentially suited to energy production located outside areas important to sage grouse.”

BHA also released a poll last month documenting strong, bipartisan support for existing sage grouse management plans by voters in Western counties with sage grouse management plans. More than half of voters polled – including 56 percent of hunters and sportsmen – in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho, support the sage grouse conservation efforts.

The increase in allowing oil and gas exploration on public land has resulted in litigation in Nevada, where the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity recently announced a suit. Similar litigation could occur throughout the sagebrush region.

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