The U.S. Forest Service advanced changes to sage grouse protections in five Western states that environmental groups say are part of the Trump administration's efforts favoring industry but that push the imperiled bird closer to extinction.
The agency on Friday released draft plans altering rules, put in place in 2015 by the Obama administration, generally viewed as keeping the bird from being listed for federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The new plans cover 8,000 square miles of greater sage grouse habitat in Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah.
John Shivik, the Forest Service's national greater sage grouse coordinator, said the plans balance protections for sage grouse while improving efficiency and aligning federal and state efforts. He said the goal is to protect habitat while also meeting the agency's mandate to make lands available for recreation, mining and livestock grazing.
"What we want people to know is how we're supporting sage grouse and multiple-use at the same time," he said.
Greta Anderson of the Idaho-based environmental group Western Watersheds Project blasted the plan as a gift for industries. She said the documents are based on politics and not science.
"The only reason to be walking back protections was if the bird was recovering, and it's not," she said.
Sage grouse are ground-dwelling, chicken-sized birds. The males are known for their strutting courtship ritual on breeding grounds called leks. They produce a bubble-type sound from inflated air sacks on their necks.
Between 200,000 and 500,000 sage grouse remain in 11 Western states, down from a peak population of about 16 million. Experts generally attribute the decline to road construction, development and oil and gas leasing. Sage grouse are considered an indicator for the health of vast sagebrush lands in the West that are also home to some 350 other species.
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.
"That is actually the biggest and most destructive energy-related change in these proposed plans," said Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a group active in environmental litigation. He said if the proposed plan is approved without changes, a federal lawsuit is likely.
The current plan also requires exceptions in primary habitat to improve conditions for sage grouse, while the proposed change requires that approved exceptions not harm sage grouse.
The Forest Service plan on focal areas essentially puts it in line with the Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which contains the bulk of sage grouse habitat. The Interior Department in October 2017 canceled proposed mining bans on 10 million acres (4,046,860 hectares) of focal areas. The mining ban was intended to negate the powerful 1872 mining law in critical sage grouse habitat.
The Forest Service is taking public comments on the new plan for 90 days.