It has been a busy October for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). On October 11, 2017, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced its intention to amend the existing greater sage grouse habitat management plans. The announcement applies to 98 plans across ten states. The Obama Administration finalized the plans in 2015 after ten years of coordination among stakeholders, including tribes, local and state government, environmental organizations, and the regulated community, as previously reported here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) relied on the plans in reaching a determination that the greater sage grouse did not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). According to the BLM announcement, the comment period for the proposed amendment of the plans closes November 21, 2017. BLM is currently scheduled to hold six public hearings across Idaho, California, Oregon and Colorado at the beginning of November to discuss possible amendments to the plans.
While it is currently unclear whether the public comment period will result in amendments to the plans, any significant changes to the plans could result in renewed petitions from the environmental community to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species under the ESA. In fact, environmental interest groups are already taking action. The Western Values Project filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on October 23, 2017 challenging the Department of Interior’s lack of response to its request for correspondence between the Department of the Interior and members of the oil and gas industry related to the greater sage grouse.
On October 11, 2017, BLM also cancelled the proposed withdrawal of 10 million acres of Sagebrush Focal Area lands. These lands were temporarily closed to new mineral entries in September 2015 while BLM prepared an Environmental Impact Statement in connection with the withdrawals. If completed, the withdrawal would have closed those lands to mineral entry for 20 years. Preventing new mining operations on those lands, located in six Western states, was one element of the Obama Administration’s sage grouse management plans. Both the long-term withdrawal and the associated Environmental Impact Statement were abandoned. It is unclear whether or how this move by BLM will play into the possible amendment of the plans and stakeholder discussions of how to manage the sage grouse going forward.
The recent spate of greater sage grouse activity has not been limited to the Department of the Interior. On October 25, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to discuss the BLM plans with an eye toward giving states more control over management of the species. Many Western states have argued that, since the species is not listed, the species should be managed by the states. In January, Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) filed H.R. 527 prohibiting federal plans that do not conform to state-approved sage grouse plans. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) filed S. 273 as a companion bill. Both bills remain in committee. Utah and Idaho previously filed lawsuits challenging the BLM plans.