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Opinion: When the sage-grouse deal is broken for special interests, we all lose

The administration came in with an agenda to break the deal and drastically undermine the 11 state sage-grouse management plans

Only a short time into Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s scandal-plagued tenure, Westerners had a hunch that the sage-grouse management plans that took nearly a decade to make — in a collaborative public process across 11 Western states — would be drastically altered to benefit the mining, oil and gas industries at the behest of a handful of special interests.

Jayson O’Neill

Western Values Project discovered that hunch was a reality after analyzing thousands of public documents and pages of correspondence from Interior’s political appointees on sage grouse.

Our research concluded that the administration was going to break the deal at the expense of not only the imperiled sage grouse and the 350 plus other species that rely on a healthy ecosystem, but every Western partner and community that worked to craft a hard-earned compromise to protect critical habitat while balancing multi-use principles and their livelihoods.

When the final management plans are released before the end of the year, it’s very likely oil, gas and mining special interests will be gifted nearly everything they requested.

The industry wish-list contained 15 specific requests, 13 of which were included in the initial draft plans, and nearly all of which will likely remain in part of the final plans in several states despite objections from many Western Governors and over half a million public comments that asked Interior to honor the original deal.

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Special interest influence on revisions to the plans means that buffer-zones in breeding habitat areas will not need to be considered in many leasing decisions across several states. Surface occupancy footprints by industry in and around these areas will not need to be minimized, impacting many other species like mule deer.

Sagebrush Focal Areas, which protected some 8.7 million areas of critical habitat, were axed in many states, and now these areas are back on the table for industrial-scale development.

While one of the most important tools, compensatory mitigation — which requires industry to offset the damage they cause to public lands — has apparently become optional, at best, from the administration’s point of view.

This all adds up to an uncertain future for the bird, the herd, and the over $1 billion of outdoor economic activity in the sagebrush sea not to mention the businesses, ranchers and agricultural producers who would be severely impacted by an endangered species listing.

Only time and science will tell if the sage grouse can withstand this last westward push by greedy land barons and corrupt political officials.

The odds don’t look good, but one thing is sure: the deal was broken by this administration as some officials chose collusion with special interests over common-sense public collaboration.

Jayson O’Neill is the Deputy Director of Western Values Project, a Montana-based nonprofit that defends America’s public lands through research and public education in order to hold policymakers and elected leaders accountable for jeopardizing the West’s outdoor heritage. Twitter: @Western_Values


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