Environment

Obama administration lays out controversial plans to protect sage grouse

July 25, 2005: In this file photo, a sage grouse stands in a meadow at the Smith Creek Ranch, east of Fallon, Nev. (AP)

July 25, 2005: In this file photo, a sage grouse stands in a meadow at the Smith Creek Ranch, east of Fallon, Nev. (AP)

The Obama administration disclosed plans Thursday to preserve the habitat of the imperiled greater sage grouse in 10 Western states that would include placing limits on oil and natural gas drilling.

The proposal would be the federal government's biggest land-planning effort to date for conservation of a single species. 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 that eat sage grouse.

The new measures would apply to federal lands in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management expects to adopt the new measures by late summer. 

The Interior Department said the move would make it less likely that the bird would end up listed as endangered.

Announcing the plans, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell acknowledged that some would argue the plans don't go far enough to protect the bird.

"But I would say these plans are grounded in sound science — the best available science," Jewell said at a news conference on a ranch near Cheyenne.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized birds that inhabit grass and sagebrush ecosystems in 11 states from California to the Dakotas. The rules would not apply to a relatively small area of habitat in Washington state. The bird's numbers have declined sharply in recent decades, and some environmentalists warn they are at risk of extinction.

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. Many Western lawmakers and representatives of the oil-and-gas and agriculture industries say a threatened or endangered listing would devastate the region's economy.

Congress voted late last year to withhold funding to implement any listing until September 2016. Other measures pending before U.S. lawmakers aim to postpone any federal listing for five years or more as states develop their own plans for conserving habitat.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, a group representing oil and gas companies with operations in Western states, told The Wall Street Journal that while they support conservation of the sage grouse, they believe that efforts at state level are the best way to proceed. 

“Western Energy Alliance will protest all land use plan amendments that fail to conform with state plans, and will continue to support actions by Congress to delay these land use plans and a final listing decision,” Sgamma told the Journal.

Republicans in Congress criticized the plans as federal overreach.

"This is just flat out wrong," Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. "If the Administration really cares about the bird they will adopt the state plans as they originally said they would. The state plans work. This proposal is only about controlling land, not saving the bird."

"This announcement is not cooperation; it is not collaboration, and it is not a solution. It is just wrong," Bishop said.

But Jewell argued that Wyoming shows that sage grouse and energy development can co-exist. It is a top oil, natural gas and coal producer with a sage grouse conservation strategy being copied by other states and the federal government.

"There is no future for our economy if we don't take care of the sage grouse," said Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican who took part in the announcement. "That's a fact. Some like it, some don't."

Several environmental groups welcomed the plans.

"The sage grouse's listing under the Endangered Species Act is an outcome from which no one stands to gain, least of all public lands sportsmen," said Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

In what some environmentalists view as an accommodation to industry, the rules would not seek to block development across sage grouse habitat. The government still intends to honor valid and existing rights to develop resources on that land, the Interior Department said.

Restrictions would vary between states. Wyoming, with as many as 500,000 greater sage grouse, is home to more of the birds than any other state by far.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.