New Sage Grouse Rules Limit Public Land Use

Bette Grande Heartland Institute
Published June 15, 2015

The Obama administration is establishing new to limits on public land uses in 10 Western states to protect the habitat of the ground dwelling greater sage grouse. The federal efforts are an attempt to prevent a continued decline in sage grouse numbers which could necessitate listing the sage grouse as threatened or endangered. The new limits are the federal government’s biggest land-planning effort to date to conserve a single species.

The proposal would affect energy development. Among other actions, the regulations would require oil and gas wells to be clustered in groups of a half-dozen or more to avoid scattering them across habitat of the greater sage grouse. Drilling near breeding areas would be prohibited during mating season, and power lines would be moved away from prime habitat to avoid serving as perches for raptors who prey on sage grouse.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30 to decide whether the greater sage grouse needs protection as a threatened or endangered species. The deadline largely became moot when President Obama signed last year’s cromnibus spending bill including a provision withholding funding to implement any listing until September 2016.

State Plans, Industry Concerns Ignored

The new federal limits undermine plans Western state governments previously developed in conjunction with federal land management agencies, with input from affected industries, federal permit holders and environmental groups, in recent years.

Kathleen Sgamma vice-president of government and public affairs with the Western Energy Alliance told the Wall Street Journal, she believe believes state efforts adequately protect the sage grouse and “Western Energy Alliance will protest all land amendments that fail to conform with state plan, and will continue to support actions by Congress to delay these use plans and a final listing decision.” Sgamma told the associated press, “The economic impact of sage-grouse restrictions on just the oil and natural gas industry will be between 9,170 and 18,250 jobs and $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion of annual economic impact across Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.”

Congressional Republicans Object

Congressional Republicans’ criticized the new regulations as unnecessary federal overreach. For instance, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee , said, “This is just flat out wrong.” 

“The state plans work,” said Bishop. “This proposal is only about controlling land, not saving the bird.” 

Shortly after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the sage grouse rule changes, language sponsored by Rep. Bishop blocking the listing of the greater sage grouse passed the House as part of the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association supported House efforts to prevent the sage grouse from being listed as endangered.

“Livestock grazing and wildlife habitat conservation go hand-in-hand, and ranchers have historically proven themselves to be the best stewards of the land,” said Brenda Richards, PLC president and NCBA member in a statement. “If sage grouse are designated for protection under the ESA, many ranchers may no longer be permitted to allow livestock to graze on or near sage grouse habitat, habitat which spans across 11 western states and encompasses 186 million acres of both federal and private land. This decision would not only destroy the ranching industry in the west, which is the backbone of many rural communities, it would also halt the conservation efforts currently underway by ranchers.” 

Bishop’s provision would also prohibit the federal government from instituting their own management plans on federal lands going further than state plans already in place, thus countermanding the rule changes announced by Sec. Jewell if it becomes law. 

Richards, who ranches in Idaho, explains in her statement, “The state plans that are already in place focus on improving sage grouse habitat, through decisions based on-the-ground where impacts to the bird can be best dealt. 

“Ranchers in particular have consistently lived and operated in harmony with the sage grouse for many decades, and in fact, the core habitat areas are thriving largely due to a long history of well-managed grazing,” continues the statement. “It is a known fact that livestock grazing is the most cost effective and efficient method of removing fine fuel loads, such as grass, from the range thus preventing wildfire, which is one of the primary threats to the sage grouse. We must allow time for these state plans, orchestrated by folks closest to the land and to the issue at hand, to be fully implemented and to accomplish their goal of protecting this bird.”

Bette Grande (governmentrelations@heartland) is a Heartland Institute research fellow and former North Dakota state legislator.