The Interior Department has issued its final amendments to how sage grouse habitat will be managed across the west. The record of decision (ROD) changes the 2015 land use plans that helped the iconic western bird avoid an endangered species listing.
The Interior's decision reduces protections for over 50 million acres in six states including Wyoming. It changes sagebrush focal areas and priority habitat management areas. It also makes it easier for oil and gas companies to lease on or near the bird's habitat.
Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, said that's because there are more accessible exceptions to no-surface occupancy stipulations. It also eliminates the requirement to prioritize energy leasing outside of sage grouse habitat in Utah and parts of Wyoming.
"If these weakened protections result in smaller grouse populations, then we might end up with a scenario that nobody wanted in the first place—an endangered species listing," Prentice-Dunn said.
Andrew Bernhardt, the acting deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said its plan promotes responsible development of natural resources while easing regulatory burdens.
"The plans adopted today show that listening to and working with our neighbors at the state and local levels of government is the key to long-term conservation and to ensuring the viability of local communities across the West," Bernhardt wrote in a press release about the ROD.
The plan was touted as providing more individual adaptation for states, while Prentice-Dunn said he sees it as the federal government shirking its responsibilities for regional conservation.
Governor Mark Gordon was one of six western governor's that wrote a response included in Interior's press release. He called the approach well-established and balanced.
"I appreciate all of the diligence that went into these plan amendments and how responsive the Department of Interior has been to Wyoming's approach. I believe the updates are surgical and recognize that the Greater sage-grouse is a state-managed species," Gordon said.
Wyoming is home to nearly 40 percent of remaining sage grouse. More documents on the decision can be found here.