U.S. to ease oil drilling controls protecting imperiled bird

Rodiano Bonacci
Dicembre 7, 2018

The Trump administration moved forward Thursday with plans to ease restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling, mining and other activities across millions of acres in the American West that were put in place to protect an imperiled bird species.

"I completely believe that these plans are leaning forward on the conservation of sage grouse", Bernhardt told The Associated Press.

"These new plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West", said Mr. Fosburgh. "Do they do it in exactly the same way, no?"

The oil-and-gas industry avoided catastrophe in September 2015 when the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that a listing was "not warranted", citing the ramped-up federal and state conservation efforts to protect the ground-dwelling bird, whose range spans 173 million acres on 11 Western states.

The changes drew a sharp backlash from conservation groups and wildlife advocates, who warned excessive use of drilling waivers could push sage grouse onto the list of threatened and endangered species. Its numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

Federal officials under President Barack Obama in 2015 adopted a sweeping set of land use restrictions meant to benefit grouse.

The new plans remove the most protective habitat designations for about 13,000 square miles of public land.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a year ago had ordered a review of protections for the sage grouse to "ensure conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities" - one of numerous reviews of Obama-era environmental protections launched by President Donald Trump's administration. The Trump administration also wants to drop some requirements to prioritize leasing for oil and gas outside sage grouse habitat.

Sage grouse are large, ground-dwelling birds known for an elaborate mating ritual in which males strut around breeding grounds with large, puffed-out air sacs protruding from their chests.

The Interior Department says the changes are being made to enhance cooperation with Western states, some of which were critical of the Obama-era plans, and that protections for the bird will remain intact.

An estimated 16 million sage grouse once roamed a vast area of sagebrush in the United States west but years of development and the spread of agriculture has razed much of its habitat, causing a 90% population drop from historic levels.

Governors from several western states previously raised concerns over a related federal directive that would limit a type of land swap that can be used to preserve habitat for the birds.

Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and a former energy lobbyist, said the proposals reflected the interests of Western States that host the chicken-sized prairie fowl, which is considered by conservationists to be a key indicator species for America's dwindling sagebrush ecosystem.

Following Thursday's release of environmental studies analyzing the changes in each state, governors and the public get another chance to weigh in before a final decision is expected in early 2019.

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