Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has announced that regulations protecting the sage grouse – rules which have been subject to years of negotiation and controversy in Western states – are once again under review.
This puts the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation plan, finalized in 2015, in a state of flux.
Zinke stressed that the Trump administration wants to see improvement in the bird's conservation, but also wants to make sure that state agencies are "heard on this issue." He said that possible modifications would take into account "local economic growth and job creation."
It's safe to say that the sage grouse, found only in North America, is a singular, strange bird that elicits strong feelings. The bird is about the size of a chicken and is known for its mating dances, involving distinctive puffing and popping from the males.
Take a look:
For decades, it has seen a drop in its population stretched across in 11 Western states. The bird cannot live in areas without sagebrush and is very sensitive to human development — as NPR's Nathan Rott reported, "a disturbance can be almost anything that fragments the landscape: roads, transmission lines, wind turbines, cattle fences, subdivisions, oil pads."
In 2010, sage grouse numbers dipped low enough to be considered for the Endangered Species Act.
That prospect was strongly opposed by industries such as oil, gas, mining and agriculture. As Nate reported, the industries said protections that accompany an endangered species listing "would cost them billions of dollars in lost economic activity." Some feared that the magnitude of the restrictions could turn rural cities into ghost towns.
In what was widely regarded as a compromise between environmentalists and industry groups, the Obama administration finalized the sweeping land use policies known as the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan in 2015.
The plan was a key reason that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in 2015 that the bird did not need the Endangered Species Act protection.
The plan, now under review, didn't please everyone. "Environmental groups complained it was riddled with loopholes and would not do enough to protect the bird from extinction," The Associated Press reported, "while mining companies, ranchers and officials in Utah, Idaho and Nevada argued that the Obama administration's actions would impede oil and gas drilling and other economic development."
The internal review team will have two months to evaluate federal and state plans; they will also work to identify "plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on the potential for energy and other development on public lands," according to the Department of the Interior.
As Reuters reported, some environmental groups immediately objected, "saying it might lead to unraveling a complex and delicately balanced strategy that took federal agencies years to negotiate with state and local governments, scientists, ranchers and other private interests."
And though Zinke has stressed that the purpose of the review is to listen to states, it's worth noting that two of the governors have spoken out against changing current policy.
In a joint letter to Zinke last month, Democrat John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Republican Matt Mead of Wyoming said that "this is not the right decision." As the AP reported, they said they were against moving "from a habitat-management model to one that sets population objectives for the states."
A change in policy has the potential to impact other "sagebrush-dependent species," said the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, including pronghorn antelope and mule deer.