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Some Western Lawmakers Worry Trump Administration Sage Grouse Plan Could Backfire

Bob Wick, BLM

Some western lawmakers are up in arms over a Trump administration announcement that eases the requirements for drilling near sage grouse. For now, Wyoming isn't impacted by the announcement, though that could change.

There used to be millions of sage grouse out West. But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are only between 200,000 and half a million of the pudgy, feathered birds. About 40 percent of them live in Wyoming, and while their population still fluctuates the state's leaders have been praised for showing steady repopulation rates, according to Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi.

"That's kind of the Western approach: We'll do it ourselves."

The Obama administration had planned to list sage grouse as an endangered species back in 2010, but eventually worked out a plan with everyone from the states to the oil and gas companies that kept them off the list. But now the Trump administration has removed what some officials say was a key plank of that plan: requiring, say, an oil company to create a similar habitat for the birds off-site if they're going to drill near their habitat. Enzi said he thinks Wyoming will be fine under the plan.

"I checked first to see how it would affect Wyoming, and it should not affect Wyoming."

But it's not just Wyoming. Sage grouse habitat stretches across 11 states in the west and two provinces in Canada. Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester said the agreements reached between property owners and state and local governments have worked, so he doesn't understand why Trump administration officials are changing it.

"And to upend that makes no sense what so ever. Because it offered a solution to the problem so that they wouldn't get listed and now I'm concerned that they might."

Tester and other officials out west—including the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada—fear the new plan for the bird may eventually force the next administration to list it as endangered.

"That's not a good thing. Keeping them off the Endangered Species List is the best possible avenue," said Tester.

It's a similar fear up in Oregon, where Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said he's also scratching his head after the administration's announcement easing rules that many private companies were fine with.

"Because Oregon has such a cooperative process to make sure that the sage grouse doesn't become an endangered species, so anything that disrupts that will be counterproductive," Merkley said.

And even Wyoming's neighbor, Colorado has protested the new rule vigorously. Colorado Democratic Senator Michael Bennett said he's still hoping the broad coalition of opponents can convince the administration to reverse its course.

"I think that hopefully, we can get them to understand just how broad the coalition is of the people who put the rule together, to begin with," he said.

Wyoming lawmakers aren't going to be signing onto those letters of protest. If anything, officials like Senator John Barrasso are now lobbying other western states to follow Wyoming's plan for rehabilitating sage grouse.

"Wyoming is sort of ground zero, so Wyoming has really taken a leadership role on this. And Governor Mead, when he was chairman of the Western Governors Association and the chairman of the Endangered Species Task Force with the of the Western Governors Association, has really worked collaboratively and in a bipartisan way to make sure we can work on this in ways that can actually lead to recovery and avoid the need for a listing," said Barrasso.

Senator Enzi agrees.

"If the rest of the nation would follow Wyoming the sage grouse would not be endangered," Enzi said.

Even so, Enzi recognizes there are hurdles facing western states when it comes to rehabilitating sage grouse.

"But the difficulty is that takes some time and some legislatures don't meet every year, and when they do they meet for short periods of time. So that makes it a little difficult to get through some of these different areas that are pretty sensitive."

All parties in this battle seem to want the same thing: to avoid an Endangered Species listing of sage grouse at all costs. But opponents fear relaxing the federal requirements will actually backfire and force the next administration to list the bird—the very outcome most everyone in this battle wants to avoid.

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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