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Protected Under Obama, the Sage Grouse Finds Itself Once Again Under Threat

A new Department of the Interior report recommends rolling back parts of a compromise protection plan implemented less than two years ago.
A female sage grouse.

In a move that conservationists and oil and gas associations have been awaiting for months, the Department of the Interior published on Monday new recommendations for how the government should regulate land where greater sage grouse live. The recommendations walk back protections set for the bird in 2015.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized wild birds that are native to 13 Western states. In recent years, their numbers have declined as oil and gas drilling and other human development degraded their grassland habitats. In 2015, a compromise conservation plan for the birds was hammered out by industry groups, conservationists, and the United States government—which owns over half of the land on which sage grouse now live. But in June, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke ordered that the plan undergo review, in part "to give appropriate weight to the value of energy and other development of public lands," as Pacific Standard reported at the time.

Now, the review's results are in. The report suggests new policies on oil leasing and development on federal lands, allowing states to set their own population goals for sage grouse, and investigating whether to change or undo so-called "Sagebrush Focal Areas." The 2015 government plan called for no new surface development on Sagebrush Focal Areas, which government scientists considered "essential" for sage grouse survival.

The recommendations are aimed at giving states more flexibility in how they manage sage grouse, Zinke told the Associated Press. Conservationists and at least one former Department of the Interior official denounced them, The Hill reports. "The recommendations are a sideways attempt to abandon habitat protection for unfettered oil and gas development," Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at the Wilderness Society, told The Hill.

The 2015 sage grouse plan was a hard-won compromise. However the updated policy is implemented, it's sure to draw fresh debate.