A task force is recommending changes that could loosen protections for the greater sage grouse, a Western bird species renowned for its elaborate mating dance.
The report comes out of a review by the Trump administration of a massive Obama-era conservation plan for the bird which is imperiled by loss of habitat.
The administration says the revisions are aimed at giving states more flexibility. But critics argue that the changes favor mining and petroleum companies and could hurt the bird's long-term prospects.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a review of current sage grouse management plans in June, saying he wanted to see improvement in the bird's conservation while also taking into account "local economic growth and job creation."
The review task force came back with a list of recommendations that could relax rules related to the sage grouse around mineral leasing areas and allow for more flexibility in grazing management. Noting President Trump's executive order "Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth," the task force's review says: "A cooperative DOI and State effort can provide the flexibility for responsible economic growth and at the same time ensure conservation of [greater sage grouse] habitat."
Zinke has ordered his agencies to being implementing the recommendations immediately.
Greater sage grouse, which live across 11 Western states, have seen their populations decline from the millions to fewer than 500,000.
In 2010, their numbers dipped to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed that the bird warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act, but limited resources and higher priorities precluded it.
Still, the finding put a scare into natural resource-dependent Western states. A listing under the Endangered Species Act would have severely limited development on tens of millions of acres of Western land. One study estimated that $5.6 billion in economic output would be lost if the bird was listed.
As a result, a broad and unlikely coalition of biologists, ranchers, environmental groups, extractive industries, federal agencies and state and local governments worked feverishly to create a management plan for the bird that would preempt a listing.
Finalized in 2015, the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan was lauded as unprecedented and as one of the most complex and comprehensive conservation efforts in U.S. history. Then-Interior Director Sally Jewell described it as a "truly historic moment – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West." Given the efforts and an evaluation of the bird's population status, the FWS decided to not list the greater sage grouse.
Not everyone was happy though. Some environmental groups argued that the plans didn't go far enough and that the bird needed protections under the Endangered Species Act to survive.
A few Western states – Nevada, Idaho and Utah – argued that the plan was too restrictive and that it would impede economic development. Some oil, gas and coal companies agreed.
With the Trump administration touting energy independence, pushing for increased energy development on federal lands, and rolling back many Obama-era environmental policies, many expected the sage grouse plan to be reviewed.
In a memo posted with the task force's recommendations, Zinke wrote that he issued the review in response to "concerns" he had heard regarding the plan.
The American Petroleum Institute applauded his efforts in a press release on Monday.
"The record shows that energy development and sage grouse populations can successfully coexist," said API Upstream Director Erik Milito. "And the industry has been a leader in working with state governments and agencies to preserve Western habitats, while continuing to meet the needs of America's energy consumers."
Environmental and conservation groups are lambasting the decision to revise the current sage grouse management plan, saying that it's a sign that the Trump administration can't say 'no' to mining and petroleum companies.
"Weakening these plans puts the grouse at grave risk of further population declines," says Steve Holmer, Vice President of Policy at American Bird Conservancy.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Trump administration announced yesterday it is reworking an Obama-era plan to protect the sage grouse. Environmental groups immediately condemned this move, saying it could endanger this chicken-sized bird that's found in 11 western states. This is about more than a bird, though. The decision appears to be a victory for industry. It will give states more flexibility to allow mining, logging and drilling where it is now restricted. To explain all this, NPR's Nathan Rott, who covers the environment, is here at NPR West with me. Hey, Nate.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So is this a big, significant decision?
ROTT: Yes and no. I mean - so the sage grouse happens to share a home with billions of dollars in natural resources - oil, gas, coal, other minerals. And you might remember that President Trump's executive order promoting energy independence, economic growth - well, oil and gas industry, some western states have argued that current efforts to conserve sage grouse, to protect its habitat, are impeding economic growth.
GREENE: They're arguing that the American economy is being held back by these birds and where they reside?
ROTT: Exactly. And you know, in some cases, the sage grouse - if there is a sage grouse that's living - if there's habitat there, some sort of development might actually be impeded, or they might have to go through a process to make sure that they're not really impacting the bird.
So this conservation plan that we're talking about - let's bear in mind that it's an Obama-era plan, so it's not terribly surprising that the Trump administration would want to review it. Yesterday we saw the results of that review and heard that the Interior Department was going to implement many recommendations.
GREENE: Many people who live in western states know this bird well. Some people in different parts the United States do not know this bird well. Can you bring people in a little bit for people who don't know the sage grouse? What is a sage grouse?
ROTT: OK, let's cue the sound.
GREENE: (Laughter) OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAGE GROUSE CHIRPING)
ROTT: You here that? I should channel my inner David Attenborough.
GREENE: It's almost like a video game in a way. But that's what they sound like.
ROTT: This is what they sound like. This is males trying to attract females. And I know you can only hear this, but I beseech you and anyone listening to this, please, when you have a second later today on your phone, computer, Google sage grouse dancing. You will not regret it. You are welcome. But in all seriousness...
GREENE: (Laughter) As soon as we're done here.
ROTT: (Laughter) Yeah. The greater sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird that lives in these big, empty-looking landscapes that you'd see in a Western. And it is imperiled. There used to be millions of them on the landscape. Now there's fewer than 500,000. And those landscapes that we're talking about - they're really not that empty. Sage grouse don't like humans or development, and there's an increasing amount of development on those lands.
GREENE: OK, explain these recommendations then. What is happening, and why are environmental groups so angry right now?
ROTT: Well, so environmental groups - I even saw one say that this could spell the doom for the bird, which I think is a bit overstating it. The Interior Department has made it very clear that they are committed to conserving the bird. They want to find the appropriate balance between conservation and economic development. They painted this as an effort to give states more flexibility in managing it. But flexibility can mean a lot of things. This is an administration that is definitely pro-energy production. And so you can understand why a conservation group might be concerned.
GREENE: I want to ask you, if I can, about another issue that you cover very closely, and that's climate change. There's this report from The New York Times. They seemed to get a hold of a draft report from scientists from 13 federal agencies saying that there is a ton of evidence of climate change. What exactly is this report?
ROTT: Yeah, so I just saw a copy of the climate change report last night, too. It's a draft, which I think is important to note for those in the scientific community. And from my understanding, there's really not any new science in it. It's more an aggregation of existing science that does lay out a pretty dire case of what the impacts of climate change will be and how much of an impact humans have had on that.
GREENE: Well, the one interesting thing was there was a government scientist speaking to The Times who was worried that the report might be suppressed - any evidence that's happening?
ROTT: You know, I cannot speak to whether or not the Trump administration would have actually suppressed this. If so, that's a really big deal. But that's a really big if. It's unclear when this was supposed to be published. We don't know that. We haven't heard from the administration, if they were going to go one way or another.
But I do think it's fair to assume that the concern that the scientist - the concern that we heard from the scientist has - came from other efforts the administration has taken toward scrubbing climate change references off of government websites and administration officials questioning the very science behind climate change time and again.
GREENE: All right, speaking to NPR's Nathan Rott, who covers the environment. He is sitting across from me right here in our studios here at NPR West. Thanks, Nate.
ROTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.