Department of Interior makes sweeping changes to sage-grouse conservation and management plans. The Interior Department lifted a mining ban on Greater sage-grouse habitat in Western states this week, “formally nixing a nearly two-year environmental impact statement evaluating the withdrawal of 10 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat from new mining claims,” E&E News reports. Much of this land is considered sage-grouse focal areas and was initially added to the sage-grouse management plan in exchange for rejecting to list the species under the Endangered Species Act.
This move comes in response to complaints from ranchers, miners, and other Westerners who said the ban was too extreme. Interior Secretary Zinke agreed, and believes that the sage-grouse can still be effectively protected without the mining ban in place. “Secretary Zinke has said from the beginning that by working closely with the states, who are on the front lines and a valued partner in protecting the health of these lands, we can be successful in conserving greater sage-grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth,” Bureau of Land Management Acting Director Mike Nedd said in a statement.
Public comment also opening for grouse. In other sage-grouse news, the Bureau of Land Management has opened a public comment period to collect input on nearly 100 Greater sage-grouse land management plans that could lead to future amendments and provide for increased state collaboration. According to a BLM press release, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada found that the Sagebrush Focal Areas BLM designated in 2015 were illegal and now the Bureau is taking steps to more adequately evaluate those designations. Once the Notice of Intent is published the comment period will be open for 45 days.
Updates on ESA species listings. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to several petitions calling to list a number of species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Notably, the Agency rejected listing the Pacific Walrus and approved federal protection for the trispot darter fish.
The Pacific walrus was one of 25 species that Fish and Wildlife refused to grant ESA protections. The Agency said the Arctic animal didn’t warrant a listing at present as it found the population “appears to possess degrees of resiliency, representation, and redundancy that have allowed it to cope with the changing environments of the last decade.” Environmentalists denounced the decision.
From this round of petitions, the single species that was granted protections was the trispot darter, a small fish that lives in the Coosa basin. Fish and Wildlife’s Southeast regional director said it decided to list the species due to declining habitat conditions. These decisions come after Agency officials announced there had been a “massive settlement” as part of which it agreed to review the status of more than 400 species, with more decisions expected in days ahead.
House committee approves five bills seeking ESA reforms. The House Committee on Natural Resources approved five bills (H.R. 717, H.R. 3131, H.R. 1274, H.R. 2603, H.R. 424) this week in an effort to reform the Endangered Species Act.
The Democratic members of the committee largely advocated for granting protections to certain species while their Republican counterparts emphasized the need to reform the ESA, but acknowledged its value. “The ESA is a landmark statute enacted with noble intent,” said Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “It also includes fatal design flaws that inhibit greater success.” Having passed through the committee, all five bills will now move to the House floor for a full vote.
In the News
Veteran Hill staffer joins Zinke’s team — sources. E&E News (sub req’d). The short-handed Interior Department continues to bolster its roster, with seasoned congressional staffer Jason Larrabee starting soon as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, according to several informed sources. Larrabee joins the department after serving since January 2011 as chief of staff for Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.). This will be Larrabee’s first tour in the executive branch, following several Capitol Hill jobs. “During his time on my team, he has been instrumental in managing our offices and providing direction for implementing policy in the Central Valley, and has been an even better friend,” Denham said in a Congressional Record statement Sept. 25. Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined this morning to discuss Larrabee’s reported appointment, which was noted by four individuals speaking on condition of anonymity, but she did indicate that some department appointments could be made public shortly.
Changes Coming To Sage Grouse Management. KRAI Radio. The Trump administration is expected to publish a notice of intent soon that would overhaul Obama-era sage grouse protection plans. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a review of Obama’s sage grouse plans earlier this year, in an effort to see if they were limiting energy production. A sage grouse task force issued recommendations last month, which focused on giving states more flexibility. The report recommended the Interior Department work with states to determine appropriate levels for the bird populations, as opposed to focusing on maintaining a certain amount of habitat for the bird. It also recommended the Interior Department clarify the process for how states can acquire waivers and exceptions in priority habitat areas. As part of those recommendations, the department is expected to publish a formal notice of intent to amend 98 sage grouse habitat management plans across the 10 affected states.
Groups Demand U.S., Canada Act to Save North Atlantic Right Whales. Humane Society (Press release). Conservation and animal-protection groups today sought action by the United States and Canada to prevent painful, deadly entanglements in fishing gear that threaten the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. In letters to Canadian officials and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the groups demanded action to reduce risks to these imperiled whales. North Atlantic right whales, one of the world’s most endangered mammals with fewer than 500 individual animals remaining on Earth, lost nearly 3 percent of their population this year. “Right whales risk spiraling toward extinction if we don’t protect them from deadly fishing gear,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This has been a tragic year for a species already teetering on the brink. U.S. and Canadian officials need to do everything they can to prevent gear entanglements and the slow, painful deaths they can cause.”
Proposed Changes to the Endangered Species Act Pit Animals Against Industry. National Law Review. Congressional Republicans have proposed five separate bills that, if passed, would reduce current protections for endangered and threatened species in the name of promoting business development and cost-saving. In keeping with the “de-regulation” focus of the Trump Administration and Trump’s January 2017 Executive Order that calls for the repeal of two regulations for every one passed, House Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee have proposed a series of changes to the Endangered Species Act that would make it more difficult to list a species, and would remove incentives for citizen groups to sue for enforcement of the listings. Taken as a set, the five proposed bills are designed to weaken the ESA while ostensibly strengthening landowner interests and saving money. And naturally environmental and conservation groups oppose all five proposed bills.
Federal endangered species law creates unnecessary costs. The Oklahoman (Editorial). The Endangered Species Act is often derided as a well-intentioned law that has devolved into self-parody at high cost to citizens. A lawsuit by three oil and natural gas-associated groups regarding the classification of the American burying beetle shows this stereotype has foundation in reality. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, American Stewards of Liberty and Osage Producers Association want the American burying beetle removed from the endangered species list. They allege the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to issue a required finding within a legally required one-year period. Under the Endangered Species Act, species can be declared endangered based “solely” on the “best scientific and commercial data available” and federal officials must also take into account state efforts to protect species. A species can be removed from the list if it is found the information used to place it there was flawed. Critics argue this is the case for the beetle.