Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Two male sage grouse face each other during a courting ritual.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

An iconic bird just lost important habitat protections: What it means

A rule rollback will allow more oil and gas drilling to occur on nearly nine million acres of lands crucial for the species’ survival.

Last week, the Trump administration rolled back protections for the embattled greater sage grouse, an iconic bird that has become a symbol of the struggle over how to balance extractive land use and preservation in the American West. The new plans allow more oil and gas leasing and drilling opportunities across nearly nine million acres of critical habitat.

Since the late 1990s, conservationists have pushed to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. An endangered listing, however, would bring severe limitations on grazing, energy development and other activities across 173 million acres of public, state and private land in the west.

To forestall that, the Obama administration in 2015 brokered a compromise plan to limit development and restore disturbed areas within “core” grouse habitat, while allowing more intensive development elsewhere.

The agreement won the support of a variety of industry and environmental stakeholders, but also spurred criticism and lawsuits. Some environmentalists argued that the protections were not strong enough; some industry groups and state and local governments called for the plan’s “draconian” restrictions on development in sage grouse habitat to be loosened.

The Trump administration heeded the latter calls.

The new plan reduces protections on over 51 million acres of “priority” habitat in seven states, making it easier for oil and gas companies to receive waivers, exceptions, and modifications to drilling rules. It eliminates from all but two states the most stringent protections, which tightly circumscribed mineral leasing and drilling in nearly nine million acres of the most sensitive grouse habitat.

The changes vary from state to state, based on requests from those states’ governors. In Utah, for instance, protections have been rolled back on all levels, whereas Montana’s Democratic Governor, Steve Bullock, requested no changes to the Obama plan.

Acting Bureau of Land Management Director Brian Steed told the Associated Press that the revisions seek to jettison the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the Obama-era rules.

“Our intent was not to throw out the plans, but to make them better respond to the needs on the ground,” Steed said. (The BLM declined to comment for this story.)

Researchers believe that sage grouse populations once numbered in the tens of millions across the high-desert “sagebrush steppe.” Today fewer than half a million birds remain in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces.

The Grouse's Unique Mating Ritual Greater Sage Grouse display their unique mating ritual.

Biologists consider the bird, which is known for its outlandish mating displays, to be an indicator species: Its condition reflects the overall health of more that 350 other species that share its habitat and, like the grouse, depend on large, undisturbed swaths of sagebrush for their survival. Oil and gas drilling, transmission lines, mines, roads, and subdivisions all threaten those species.

Back to the courts?

The energy industry has applauded the revisions. Paul Ulrich, of Wyoming-based Jonah Energy, serves on Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team. The revisions hew more closely to the 2008 plan he helped forge for Wyoming, “which is a good thing,” he says. The most protective designation under the Obama plan, the “sagebrush focal area,” no longer exists in Wyoming, but state-level protections are still in place across 24 percent of the state’s land area, Ulrich says.

“We have a strong program in place that has proven to be effective. We wanted more state control where we can chart our destiny and we’re in the drivers seat. That’s good for the grouse. We all have a clear understanding that we need to take care of this bird, and we’re doing it.”

This state-by-state strategy alarms conservation advocates, however. “They are taking a historic conservation achievement and instead focusing on opening lands for oil and gas development and putting the burden back on states,” says Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society. The regionwide impact of the changes, adds Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities, “is where we get into trouble. The sage grouse doesn’t know political boundaries. The sage grouse doesn’t know where the state line is.”

Both the Center for Western Priorities and The Wilderness Society supported the 2015 Obama compromise. Other conservation organizations filed suit against it, however, arguing that the 2015 plans were not adequate to protect the bird. That litigation will continue to move forward against the Trump revisions to those plans.

“They’ve taken a deal that was bad for sage grouse in 2015 and adjusted it in ways that make life easier for oil and gas operators and extinction more likely for sage grouse,” says Michael Saul, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which initiated litigation against the Obama plan in 2016.

Last year, the group filed a second suit challenging new lease sales and drilling permits in sage grouse habitat. “The Trump administration has been undermining or ignoring the 2015 plans even before it finished these formal changes, through massive and indiscriminate oil and gas leasing in high quality sage grouse habitat,” Saul says.

Two recent lease sales, in the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, covered mostly designated sage grouse habitat, which the Obama plan required land managers to try to avoid. One includes the “Golden Triangle”—the highest concentration of sage grouse in the world, including a half-mile long, high-altitude “super-lek” where hundreds of grouse congregate to mate.

As lease sales and newly drilled wells have proliferated across sage grouse country, some of the bird’s neighbors are alarmed.

“It’s huge infrastructure changes, roads like you wouldn’t believe through what was pristine sage grouse country, and trucks, just destroying it,” says one Wyoming rancher, who asked not to be named because of concerns about losing his grazing permits. “It makes me so mad I could cry. Any thought that sage grouse are going to survive is almost ludicrous.”

Sage grouse populations are cyclical, and notoriously difficult to count. But if the birds resume their decline, conservationists will push anew for a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re going to continue fighting with every possible legal tool at our disposal to keep the Trump administration from destroying the last remaining habitat for this amazing American bird,” says Saul. “This is a loss along the level of the loss of the passenger pigeon or the near-loss of the American bison—but in a way it’s worse, because we see it happening. We know it’s happening, and the public agencies that are charged with the management of most of its remaining habitat are complicit in watching it head towards extinction.”