In the final hours of 2017, when most of us were with our families enjoying the holiday season, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and the Trump administration announced that they were making major changes to the sage-grouse land management plans. Before the New Year’s ball dropped, the Bureau of Land Management released six instructional memorandums to state and field offices outlining how to implement significant changes to state-based sage-grouse management plans.
These radical changes, made by Zinke and the BLM, gut some of the most important protections for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat. Not only will these changes erase nearly a decade of hard work and collaboration, they will also put the future of sage grouse and over 350 other species that depend on a healthy and thriving sagebrush habitat, including pronghorn, mule deer, and elk, in jeopardy. These changes will also risk sustainable livestock grazing and over $1 billion in outdoor related economic activity that takes place on sagebrush land annually, all at the behest of special interests.
The worst part is that these unwanted and unneeded changes ignore a bipartisan coalition of western governors, professional wildlife managers and over 270,000 Americans who clearly urged BLM not to make changes to the plans during the abbreviated public comment period last fall.
Westerners of all stripes carried a similar message to BLM staff in person: Let the state-based plans work. Even more troubling is that the BLM changes were implemented before the U.S. Forest Service comment period even closes. These new guidelines also remove the public from public land planning, eliminating the requirement that agencies notify the public when sage grouse habitat or population counts reach points that management changes need to be made.
While it is clear that Zinke and the BLM appear to be ignoring public comments, they are even going one step further and denying that they even received anywhere near the 270,000 comments that were submitted in support of the plans – instead claiming that only 45,000 comments were substantive. Ignoring public comments is anti-democratic and demonstrates the contempt that Zinke has for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who support the sage grouse plans.
This whole process has highlighted that Zinke is only interested in listening to and appeasing special interests and corporate backers over westerners who will be most impacted by these reckless policy directives. We are hopeful that as the U.S. Forest Service comment period comes to a close, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue respect and listen to all the Americans who submit comments. Throughout all of these challenges, one thing has been consistent: Now is not the time to go back to square one.