March 24, 2019

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Trump Administration Loosens Sage Grouse Protections, Benefiting Oil Companies

Trump Administration Loosens Sage Grouse Protections, Benefiting Oil Companies
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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday finalized its plan to loosen Obama-era protections on the habitat of the sage grouse, an imperiled ground-nesting bird that roams across 10 oil-rich Western states.

The plan, which would strip away protections for the bird on nearly nine million acres of land in the West — making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill on that land — was first detailed in a draft proposal published in December.

The sage grouse plan is the latest step in a series of moves by the Trump administration to promote oil and gas drilling on public land, in support of what President Trump has called a policy of American “energy dominance.” The architect of the plan, David Bernhardt, is a former oil lobbyist who now serves as acting head of the Interior Department.

Mr. Trump has nominated Mr. Bernhardt to formally assume the position of interior secretary.

“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,” Mr. Bernhardt said in a statement on Friday.

Environmentalists criticized the plan as a giveaway to the oil and gas industry that would devastate the nesting habitat of the bird.

“By punching oil-rig-sized loopholes through these plans, the administration will drive the sage grouse closer to an endangered species listing,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities, an advocacy group. “Unfortunately for the grouse, Bernhardt is also leading a charge to gut the Endangered Species Act.”

Mr. Bernhardt has led an effort to overhaul the 1973 law, which was designed to protect the nation’s wildlife. He has pushed for changes such as requiring the federal government to take into account the economic impact of placing a species on the endangered species list. Currently, the law only requires that regulators take into account the scientific evidence showing whether a species is threatened.

Under a sage grouse plan put forth in 2015, during the administration of former President Barack Obama, oil and gas drilling was banned or limited in 10.7 million acres where the bird lives, under a stringent designation known as “sagebrush focal areas.” The new plan would limit that designation to all but 1.8 million acres, mostly in Oregon and Montana.

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat, offered praise for the protections in her state afforded by the Trump administration’s plan.

“Balancing sage grouse habitat protection and economic development requires mitigation of negative impacts,” she said. “This agreement is a critical step that marks a shift away from planning toward active conservation and landscape management to protect this iconic species. Oregon’s bounty is beautiful and worth continuing to protect and fight for.”



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