Three years ago the Forest Service had this to say about the greater sage-grouse:
Two US Forest Service Records of Decision and associated land management plan amendments are the culmination of an unprecedented planning effort in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management to conserve greater sage-grouse and its habitat on National Forest System lands and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands.
Last week it was this (and they initiated a public comment period):
Since approving the plan amendments in 2015, the Forest Service has gathered information and determined that the conservation benefits of Forest Service plans in Nevada and other states can be improved. That is, through repeated scoping, close collaboration with state and other federal agencies, and internal review, the Forest Service has identified proposed changes in the text of the greater sage-grouse plan amendments which would improve their clarity and efficiency and better align them with the Bureau of Land Management and state plans.
Specifically, the Preferred Alternative makes modifications to land management plans within the issue areas of: Habitat management area designation, including designating sagebrush focal areas as Priority Habitat Management Areas compensatory mitigation and net conservation gain; minerals plan components and waivers; exceptions and modifications; desired conditions; livestock grazing guidelines; adaptive management; treatment of invasive species; and changes to clarify text and eliminate errors and redundancies.
Oddly, it sounds like all of the new information must say that sage-grouse are doing better than we thought three years ago and/or they are less vulnerable to oil and gas drilling than we thought three years ago. The most important change in forest plans is probably this one (from an AP article):
The Obama administration created three protection levels for sage grouse. Most protective were Sagebrush Focal Areas, followed by Primary Habitat Management Areas and then General Habitat Management Areas. The Forest Service plan reclassifies the 1,400 square miles (3,600 kilometers) of Sagebrush Focal Areas as primary habitat.
The focal areas allowed no exceptions for surface development, while primary habitat allowed for limited exceptions with the agreed consent of various federal and state agencies. Under the new plan, the cooperation of states and some federal agencies to exceptions in primary habitat will no longer be needed for some activities but can be made unilaterally by an “authorized officer,” likely an Interior Department worker. That appears to be an avenue for opening focal areas to natural gas and oil drilling.
This amendment decision will be subject to the 2012 Planning Rule requirements for species viability and species of conservation concern (SCC) (from the DEIS):
… the FS is considering the effect on the greater sage-grouse as a potential SCC for each LMP that would be amended by this decision. The analysis in this DEIS shows that the amendments maintain ecological conditions necessary for a viable population of greater sage-grouse in the plan area for each LMP to which the amendments would apply.
Recall that the current conservation strategy was “generally viewed as keeping the bird from being listed for federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.” What will the Zinke that is charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service have to say to the Zinke that is in charge of the BLM (and apparently the Forest Service)? Why does this remind me of political appointee Julie McDonald’s interference with decisions about lynx? Is it more about a new boss than about new science? “A federal lawsuit is likely.”
Some more background is provided here.