On December 10, 2018 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published six individual proposed amendments and final Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) amending the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans for the states of Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada/Northern California, and Oregon.
While the specific revisions vary from state to state, they give states increased flexibility for oil, gas, and ranching activities in managed sage grouse habitat. The revisions open previously protected habitat to oil and gas exploration and finalize the removal of strict protections for nearly 10 million acres of Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs)—areas that had been designated under the 2015 Sage Grouse Plans as critical to the bird’s survival. Drilling and mining companies can now apply for a waiver with the BLM to conduct work in these areas.
The sage grouse, an iconic bird of the American west, has seen steady population decline over the last century, attributed to habitat loss to oil and gas development and increased wildfires. Despite this population decline, a 2002 petition to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act failed after a 13-year odyssey. In 2010, the Department of Interior declined to list the sage grouse as endangered, deciding that listing was “warranted but precluded.” In the December 2014 Appropriations Bill for 2015, just before a court-imposed deadline for Interior to act, Congress prohibited the Department from using any funds to list the bird as threatened or endangered—a prohibition it has reenacted each year since.
With over half the birds’ population found on federal land, in September 2015 the US Forest Service (USFS) and BLM acted to protect the bird through an alternative mechanism, adopting amendments and revisions to 98 land use plans across at least 10 different States totaling 67 million acres (collectively the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans). Central to this collective plan was the designation of the SFAs, for which the plans recommended “eliminat[ing] new surface disturbance from various sources, including mining.”
The 2015 Sage Grouse Plans were subject to immediate legal challenge, and in March 2017, the US District Court for the District of Nevada ruled that the agencies violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) when they failed to prepare a supplemental EIS for the designation of the SFAs. In July 2017, then Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zeke issued Secretarial Order 3353, calling for revisions to the 2015 Sage Grouse Plans. In October 2017, the BLM announced it would comply with the court ruling and recommendations stemming from Zinke’s order by canceling the proposal to withdraw the SFAs from development, while also seeking public input from stakeholders and states about revisions to 2015 Sage Grouse Plans.
Environmentalists groups criticize the December 2018 BLM amendments for undoing a conservation plan that was years in the making with multiple stakeholder groups, while oil, gas, and some state’s leaders applaud the change for providing increased flexibility.
Although challenges to the plan revisions continue in several courts around the country, the federal government held its first auction of oil and gas leases in sage grouse habitat at the end of February.
On March 15, 2019, the BLM issued signed Records of Decision (RODs) and Approved Resource Management Plan Amendments for the six affected states. In a press release, the BLM described the new plans as "[f]urthering the Administration’s goals of restoring trust with local communities and responsibly developing America’s natural resources while easing regulatory burdens[.]"
The signed RODs and Approved RMP Amendments can be accessed here: