Sage grouse conservation changes praised, provoke alarm

President Donald Trump’s administration has opened the door to industry-friendly changes to a sweeping plan imposed by his predecessor to protect a ground-dwelling bird across vast areas of the West.

Wildlife advocates warn that the proposed changes would undercut a hard-won struggle to protect the greater sage grouse.

Representatives of the ranching and energy industries cheered the policy shift as needed to give states flexibility.

A document outlining the recommended changes was released Monday by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

It recognized for the first time the importance of livestock grazing on sage grouse habitat, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

It also backed away from requirements to keep rangeland grasses and shrubs at a prescribed minimum height, which ranchers had complained was arbitrary.

“I was very pleased with what I saw there in terms of the tone,” Magagna said.

The ground-dwelling sage grouse has lengthy, pointed tail feathers and is known for the male’s elaborate courtship display in which air sacs in the neck are inflated to make a popping sound.

Millions of sage grouse once populated the West but development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires has reduced the bird’s population to fewer than 500,000.

States affected by the conservation plan are California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Just how much Zinke intends to tinker with the plan that was years in the making remains to be seen.

It was hashed out under President Barack Obama and unveiled in 2015 as a solution to keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list following a decade-long population decline caused by disease and pressure on the birds’ habitat from energy development, grazing and wildfires.

The proposed changes, the result of a 60-day review of the plan by Zinke’s agency, could give states wiggle room in areas such as setting population goals for sage grouse and drawing boundaries of recognized sage grouse habitat.

Advocacy groups such as The Wilderness Society and National Wildlife Federation said the proposal was a backdoor attempt to allow unfettered oil and gas development that ignored previous scientific studies showing that drilling too close to sage grouse breeding areas would harm the birds.

“Wholesale changes to the plans are not necessary and could derail years of hard work,”…

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