SALT LAKE CITY — In another reversal of an Obama era action, the Interior Department on Thursday said it will not withdraw 10 million acres from potential mining in sage grouse areas in six Western states and reopen the controversial management plans.
“The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres to prevent 10,000 from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” said acting Bureau of Land Management director Mike Nedd.
“Secretary (Ryan) Zinke has said from the beginning that by working closely with the states, who are on the front lines and a valued partner in protecting the health of these lands, we can be successful in conserving greater sage grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth. And that’s what we intend to do — protect important habitat while also being a good neighbor to states and local communities.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, praised the move.
"These withdrawals were never about sage grouse conservation. It was all a ploy to assert more federal power, ignore actual data and best science, and diminish the influence and authority of states. States have proven to be more than capable of managing wildlife and conservation within their borders and will continue to be the best advocate for the species," he said.
Bishop added: “Secretary Zinke is developing a better policy through input from states and people on the ground with local knowledge and expertise.”
The BLM said it determined the proposal to withdraw 10 million acres was unreasonable in light of the data that showed that mining affected less than 0.1 percent of sage-grouse-occupied range in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The lands had been closed to new mining claims since 2015, when the Interior Department first began examining whether mineral exploration and mining projects would pose threats to the greater sage grouse and its habitat. The temporary closure expired late last month.
An association representing independent oil and gas producers in Utah and elsewhere in the West lauded the agency's decision to revisit management policy on greater sage grouse.
“We are very pleased BLM is moving forward with amending the sage grouse plans. The plans discouraged on-the-ground, local conservation efforts and ignored state plans, except for Wyoming’s, in favor of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
Environmental groups panned the decision.
“This administration is playing chicken with the sage grouse extinction,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “The Department of Interior is now abandoning all pretense of protecting sage grouse in a stampede to ramp up commercial exploitation of public lands.”
Few groups were particularly happy with the BLM sage grouse plans at the time of their adoption.
Groups like the Western Watersheds Project complained there were too many loopholes and the plans were not protective enough for the species, which has seen dramatic population declines in its West-wide range.
Biologists blame a variety of factors, including wildfires, invasive species, urban encroachment and industry activity. One study said West Nile Virus wiped out a significant portion of its population early this century.
The controversial federal plans prompted Utah and other states to sue. Utah specifically sought to void the mineral withdrawal and complained that its state plan — with successes in conservation of habitat and improvement in species' numbers — had been ignored.
On Thursday, the agency said it is revisiting designation of sagebrush "focal areas," in its sage grouse plans in light of a federal court ruling in Nevada earlier this year that deemed the provisions illegal.
“The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government, including states, as well as tribal leaders, industry and conservation groups, ranchers, and other stakeholders throughout the amendment process,” said Need. "During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans. "
The agency says it intends to collect feedback and will announce any public meetings.