The Trump administration on Monday moved forward on overhauling the government's land policies for protecting the chicken-sized sage grouse while ensuring economic development in the West.
A special sage grouse task force in the Interior Department outlined recommendations in a 53-page report on how to tackle the challenges of keeping the bird off the endangered species list, focusing heavily on giving states more flexibility under the sage grouse protection plan implemented by the Obama administration.
Monday's report recommends that the Interior Department work with the states to determine appropriate levels for the bird populations on a state-by-state basis, while giving states more flexibility on how to meet the previous administration's land protection standards. It recommends that the agency clarify the process for how states can acquire waivers and exceptions in priority habitat areas.
The report also proposes to increase data sharing, initiate new research and incorporate new information into plan implementation, according to an executive summary. And it recommends the creation of captive breeding programs to manage the bird's numbers, while establishing predator control programs and setting population targets.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he will place the responsibility of implementing the report's numerous recommendations in the hands of his recently confirmed deputy, David Bernhardt, who helped craft the agency's protection policy for the polar bear when he was the Interior Department's chief counsel in the George W. Bush administration.
Immediate implementation of the short-term recommendations should be followed by discussion of long-term proposals to augment and change President Barack Obama's sage grouse plan, Zinke said.
The recommendations are in response to the complaints from oil and natural gas drilling companies, as well as farmers, ranchers and other land developers over current sage grouse policy. Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell tried to strike a balance between maintaining the bird's habitat while avoiding implementing stricter protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The report was compiled in response to a June 7 order from Zinke that created the task force to recommend ways to "improve sage-grouse conservation and to strengthen communication and collaboration between states and the federal government."
"Together, the federal government and the states are working to conserve and protect sage grouse and their habitat while also ensuring conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities," the agency said. "Secretary Zinke established an internal review team that, among other things, evaluated both federal sage-grouse plans and state plans and programs to ensure they are complementary and explored possible plan modifications with local economic growth and job creation in mind. "