BILLINGS, Mont. – The Biden administration on Friday said it will consider new measures to protect greater sage grouse, a bird species once found across much of the U.S. West that has suffered drastic declines in recent decades due to oil and gas drilling, grazing, wildfires and other pressures.
The announcement of a range-wide evaluation of habitat plans for greater sage grouse came after the Trump administration tried to scale back conservation efforts adopted when Biden was vice president in 2015.
A federal court blocked Trump's changes. But Biden administration officials said the attempt set back conservation efforts — even as the chicken-sized bird's habitat was further ravaged by wildfires, invasive plants and continued development.
Disagreement over the region's sage grouse is longstanding and often bitter, and any new restrictions the administration adopts against energy or agriculture is sure to further inflame tensions. Republican-run states and industries that profit off public lands have clashed with wildlife advocates over how much space the birds need to survive.
Many environmentalists insisted that the 2015 conservation plans didn't go far enough because of loopholes that allowed grazing and drilling on land that sage grouse need. Opponents said they hobbled economic progress.
Biologists say wide buffers from drilling and other activities are needed to protect sage grouse breeding areas where birds engage in elaborate annual mating rituals.
Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Nada Culver said “everything's on the table” as the agency launches its evaluation of sage grouse habitat, with no set deadlines for action.
“From changes to the buffers, to how we manage energy development, to how we manage every other activity....we are evaluating it and we are looking for input on what are the most important things to look at,” Culver said.
Officials also will look at how climate change is adding to pressures on sage grouse. Culver pointed to data showing wildfires burned almost 10,700 square miles (28,000 square kilometers) of the bird's habitat since 2016. The vast majority of the fires were on federal lands.
Greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions across all or portions of 11 Western states. Populations have dropped 65% since 1986, government scientists recently concluded.
In 2010, wildlife officials said drastic habitat losses meant protections for sage grouse had become warranted for under the Endangered Species Act. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not take any action at the time, saying other species took priority.
In 2015, the wildlife service determined protections were no longer needed after other federal and states officials adopted sweeping land management plans meant to halt or reverse the species’ decline.
The plans were billed as a compromise, but some components unraveled after Trump took office in 2017 and states sought changes to the documents that critics said would hurt grouse.
The quirky birds with long tail feathers are known for elaborate courtship displays in which males puff up air sacs in their chests to make an odd popping sound.
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he believed land bureau director Tracy Stone-Manning — a former aide to the lawmaker — would pursue a collaborative, balanced approach that will keep sage grouse from becoming an endangered species.
But Western Republicans — including Montana's Gov. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines and Wyoming's Gov. Mark Gordon and Sen. Cynthia Lummis — criticized the Biden administration action. They said states should be given deference to manage wildlife and federal lands kept open for energy exploration and grazing.
“Wyoming knows how to manage the greater sage grouse, and I’m very concerned that greater federal control will do nothing for the birds, but be devastating for ranchers and energy producers,” said Lummis.
Gordon noted that Wyoming has more sage grouse than any other state and said “no changes are necessary.”
Daines said state and local conservation efforts needs to be protected from “federal overreach," while Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for Gianforte, said Montana already has a plan that balances conservation and rural economies.
In May, federal officials in response to a court order said that they would consider bans on new mining to help the birds.
A ban proposed under former President Barack Obama was dropped by the Trump administration. The affected lands totaled 10 million acres (4 million hectares) in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The land bureau has resumed that process. It will consider the original proposal and additional options, spokesperson Alyse Sharpe said.
The order to take a new look at mining came in a lawsuit from environmentalists. The judge faulted the Trump administration for ignoring prior science on the issue.
Erik Molvar with plaintiff Western Watersheds Project said falling back on the Obama-era plans would not work, because they allowed too much disturbance of sage brush habitat, he said.
“The Obama administration did their best to please all the different ends of the political spectrum. But in the end they didn’t please anybody and they didn’t give the sage grouse the habitat they needed,” Molvar said.
Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance, a group representing oil and gas companies, said Friday’s move by the administration came as no surprise.
“Sage grouse has been a political football for decades,” she said. “The back and forth continues."
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP