What to know about the plan for the threatened sage grouse in the Arctic

Five years ago, President Barack Obama signaled what environmental leaders see as a major turning point in the fight to protect sage grouse by issuing an executive order to curb hunting and oil and gas development near grouse habitat in the West. But last week, the Interior Department failed to sign off on a separate protection plan for the birds that’s expected to save hundreds of the endangered species. The Obama administration declined to sign off on the plan when federal wildlife managers failed to meet a 60-day deadline.

Now the Interior Department’s proposed plan will get a fresh look under former Vice President Joe Biden, who steps in as the government’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

The Fish and Wildlife Service published a plan to better protect the greater sage grouse in March 2016, but the Interior Department never really released the plan to public comment. In December 2016, the agency submitted it to Biden for review. This time, the department has an additional 30 days to publish the plan, said Francis Taylor, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“A lot of people were focused on the larger issue, whether it’s the [climate] rules or various other things,” Taylor said. “We’re in a different time and space than we were last time, and we needed to revisit the whole process.”

A protective plan for the grouse would also put new restrictions on the burning of land, drilling and development near sage grouse’s range and speed up habitat restoration work.

Taylor said the agency needs time to brief Fish and Wildlife on the new plan, figure out why plans didn’t go through and review the science to “make sure everything’s working.”

Jim Hunt, director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, said the new Interior deputy secretary would be “trying to figure out what happens after Trump gets out.”

Hunt said, “This announcement raises a lot of questions that Fish and Wildlife needs to answer,” including: “Who’s in charge? Who’s got authority here?”

Biden, as a cabinet member, would have authority over what moves the agency made, said Elyse Siegel, associate director for government affairs at the Wilderness Society.

Environmental activists and others said the protection plans never made sense.

“You had the Fish and Wildlife Service decide that it would try to prevent conservation by proposing real threats to game,” Siegel said. “That really didn’t make any sense to us.”

— Adrian Proszenko

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