BLM moving toward strategy for Greater Sage Grouse, Jewell says

Feb. 25, 2015
Calling it a remarkable example of federal, state, and local cooperation, US Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell said the US Bureau of Land Management is finishing up plans to protect the Greater Sage Grouse and make it unnecessary for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as an endangered or threatened species.

Calling it a remarkable example of federal, state, and local cooperation, US Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell said the US Bureau of Land Management is finishing up plans to protect the Greater Sage Grouse and make it unnecessary for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as an endangered or threatened species.

“BLM’s plans are being finalized right now,” she said during a Feb. 24 appearance before the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss DOI’s Fiscal 2016 budget request. “I expect them to be issued this spring and turned over to FWS.”

Many committee members appeared more interested in this effort than in Chair Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alas.) criticism of the proposed budget in her opening statement, which portrayed Interior and its agencies uninterested in needs and views of western states in general and Alaska in particular.

Oil and gas producers, ranchers, governors and fish and game departments, and local officials have worked for years to mitigate environmental impacts on the grouse’s habitat across seven western states. BLM’s goal is to release final environmental impact statements it has developed with the US Forest Service this summer to protect the bird with a series of priority habitat management areas.

Three environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians—sued FWS in 2010 for allegedly delaying Endangered Species Act protection for the bird. FWS accepted a Sept. 30 deadline for reaching a listing decision as part of a 2011 court settlement involving 290 so-called candidate species.

Since 2010, the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation and its federal, state, and local partners in the Greater Sage Grouse Initiative have worked with private landowners to restore 4.4 million acres of the bird’s habitat while maintaining working landscapes across the West, USDA said in a Feb. 12 report.

Money for implementation

Interior’s fiscal 2016 budget request includes a $45 million increase to support an increased workload and commitments as implementation of the Greater Sage Grouse conservation plans gains momentum. It said the funds would support activities in three broad categories: managing resource uses in the bird’s habitats, restoring and reconnecting the habitats, and assessing, monitoring, and reporting on conditions in priority habitats. “I hope we don’t get to a point where it’s listed as threatened or endangered because so many people are working hard to make this unnecessary,” Jewell said.

When committee member Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) suggested that implementation plans developed by the states have the greatest chance of succeeding, Jewell responded, “What’s happening is unprecedented as the states and federal government work closely together. [FWS] needs rules to rely on, which some governors’ executive orders have provided.”

Colorado’s John W. Hickenlooper (D) and Wyoming’s Matt Mead (R) co-chair the Governors’ Sage Grouse Initiative, Jewell noted. “One size clearly won’t fit all,” she said. “Wyoming has shown the way with its aggressive program. In Nevada, where the federal government owns 87% of the land, it has to set the pace.”

Committee member James R. Risch (R-Ida.) applauded Jewell’s efforts to have BLM and FWS work together on the grouse problem, but said an Oct. 1 letter from FWS Director Dan Ashe identified new focal areas injected fresh uncertainty relatively late in the proceedings.

“We’re ready to go in Idaho. We want to work with the federal government on our plan,” said Risch. “Of course we’re going to get sued. But we want everybody who’s pragmatic and working together on one side of the table, and the nut cases on the other.”

Other proposals questioned

Other committee Republicans questioned proposals elsewhere in DOI’s 2016 budget request. “I am incredibly opposed to [its] plan to deprive Gulf Coast states of revenue they’ve been promised to restore coastlines damaged by activity related to oil and gas development,” said Bill Cassidy (La.). “Working families are relying on it to rebuild this land where they live and work.”

Jewell responded, “I care about these families as I care about anyone living in a coastal community that is having to deal with environmental consequences. This is a proposal about whether revenue from offshore production should be focused on four states or the entire nation.”

John Barrasso (Wyo.) said the secretary praised the state’s hydraulic fracturing regulations in 2014, and asked whether BLM would allow it to apply for a variance when the DOI agency issues its own fracing requirements. “Our proposed regulation says when a state’s rule is stronger, that rule will apply,” Jewell responded. Asked by John Hoeven (ND) when she expected BLM to issue its final fracing rule, the secretary replied, “Soon. I can’t be more specific, but I know a lot of work has gone into this.”

But Murkowski’s opening statement was the most critical. “Sec. Jewell, you and I have had many opportunities to visit one-on-one, as well as your trip to Alaska which I appreciate your taking last week, and I don’t want to make this personal,” the senator said. “But the decisions from [Interior] have lacked balance, and instead of the many opportunities Alaska has with regards to resource production, you have enabled an unprecedented attack on our ability to bring those resources to market.”

She said these included Obama’s proposal to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness (OGJ Online, Jan. 26, 2015), presidential withdrawals of offshore tracts, and restrictions within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Murkowski said Alaska’s congressional delegation, governor, lieutenant governor, House and Senate leadership, and numerous Native leaders told Jewell a week earlier in Kotzebue that the state has been actively ignored when it comes to ANWR.

“There were some fireworks” in Alaska, Jewell told reporters following the hearing. “We met with many state and local officials, and we’ll try to keep this dialogue constructive. We’re definitely engaged.”

Contact Nick Snow at [email protected].

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.