By the Natural Resources Defense Council
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke moved forward today with a sweeping rollback of a conservation plan meant to protect the imperiled greater sage grouse as well as critical wildlife habitat that supports hundreds of other species in the western United States. “It’s hard to pretend at this point that Zinke is a steward of America’s public lands,” says Bobby McEnaney, senior director of the Western Renewable Energy Project at NRDC. “He acts more like a pillager.”
The change will allow for more industrial activity, like oil and gas drilling and mining, in sage grouse breeding habitat. A keystone species in the West, the greater sage grouse population once numbered 16 million, but thanks to decades of habitat fragmentation, wildfires, and invasive weeds that have eroded the sagebrush, only an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 remain. Saving the sage grouse will also help protect the 350 other species that depend on healthy sagebrush habitat, like elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and golden eagles.
In 2015, a comprehensive set of federal land use restrictions was put in place to help the sage grouse’s plummeting numbers. The plan was “carefully crafted by states, ranchers, conservationists, and public officials to protect this iconic western bird and the unique sagebrush landscape it inhabits,” McEnaney says. Today’s decision comes after several indications from the Trump administration—in October and December 2017—that it would prioritize the interests of the oil and gas industry over preserving habitat, and Bureau of Land Management plans to lease this landscape have multiplied in the past year.
“Zinke’s move to unravel it is his single-largest land use decision to date,” McEnaney says. “It has no basis in science—it’s a bald-faced giveaway to the oil and gas industry.”