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The DOI Temporarily Removed Documents About a Controversial Plan to Loosen Sage Grouse Protections

Citing the government shutdown, the Department of the Interior (DOI) temporarily took down documents outlining its proposal to roll back environmental protections on millions of acres of land in six states, the Reno Gazette Journal reports.

The proposal is supposed to be open for a 30-day public comment period that ends January 8th. On December 24th, staffers at Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group, noticed the documents were unavailable and notified the Gazette Journal. On December 26th, the documents were once again posted online, the newspaper reports.

This isn't the first time advocacy groups have criticized the government for removing information from the Internet that's related to this proposal, which loosens protections that scientists say are critical for the greater sage grouse, an endangered bird native to Western scrublands. Earlier this month, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative published reports criticizing the DOI for removing webpages, created during the Obama administration, that celebrated that government's sage grouse protection successes and described the Trump administration's reversal of Obama-era policy.

Taking down information from websites seems to violate the DOI's own policy for a government shutdown, Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project's executive director, told the Gazette Journal. The policy says that, during a shutdown, departmental websites won't be updated, but they "will remain online, as permitted by their current contracts and support arrangements." As of December 31st, despite the continuing shutdown, some other government proposals that are open for public comment are available for the public to read, including this Department of Education proposal and this Environmental Protection Agency proposal. The "Comment Now!" button on those pages even appears to work, although the pages also say "continued systems operations cannot be guaranteed."

The greater sage grouse isn't necessarily the most inspiring animal. In 2015, journalist Gabriel Kahn described it for Pacific Standard as "not very fast or ambitious," poor at flying, and easy prey for everything from mountain lions to badgers. However, conservationists want to protect them because they're considered an indicator species and a sign of how well all of the animals that depend on the same land are faring.