Senators press U.S. Forest Service on greater sage-grouse review

Last month, agency signaled that it may be seeking potential changes to 2015 greater sage-grouse plans.

A total of 13 Democrat senators wrote a letter to U.S. Forest Service chief Tony Tooke to request information about the agency’s role in the Trump Administration’s review of 2015 plans to protect the imperiled greater sage-grouse.

In a Federal Register notice last month, the U.S. Forest Service signaled that the agency may be seeking potential changes to the 2015 plans. Because modifying the plans could have a significant economic impact on rural communities, the senators asked for details on the agency’s review and requested an extended comment period.

The greater sage-grouse population that was once estimated to be as large as 16 million has today been reduced to between 200,000 and 500,000 birds. To address this precipitous decline, an unprecedented coalition of ranchers, farmers, sportsmen, conservationists, community members and federal and state government agencies came together to forge a consensus vision to help protect the bird.

Over the course of a decade, this broad group crafted and refined land use plans to protect the species while also protecting rural economies. The solutions brought forward by these diverse interests are thoughtful, hard-won and deserve appropriate deference in any review or potential revision of the 2015 plans.

The Federal Register notice is the latest move in a larger review of the 2015 protections that is being conducted across the Trump Administration’s public land agencies. In June, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a secretarial order mandating a review of the 2015 protections. Following the order, four senators asked Zinke for details on the review to ensure that it would not undermine conservation outcomes.

The letter noted that on Nov. 11, 2017, the Associated Press reported that Govs. Matt Mead of Wyoming, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Steve Bullock of Montana were concerned that changing the current plans could undercut work to prevent a greater sage-grouse listing as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. They asked which governors Tooke has spoken with thus far regarding the Forest Service's potential actions to revise the 2015 plans.

The Nov. 21, 2017, Federal Register notice regarding potential land use plan amendments involves 15 national grasslands and forests spread across 11 western states. Given the potentially vast acreage involved, complexity of these plans and wide variety of interested stakeholders, the senators requested that Tooke extend the deadline for comments by at least 45 additional days.

The letter, led by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was also signed by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources, Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.), Tom Udall (D., N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), Patty Murray (D., Wash.), Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), Dianne Feinstein (D., Cal.) and Jack Reed (D., R.I.).

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