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Ornithologists Amanda Rodewald and John Fitzpatrick speak out on Zinke's anti-conservation efforts

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Ryan Zinke wants to break many conservation efforts

© Pixabay

Despite praising and promoting public-private partnerships as cost-effective approaches to managing federal lands, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke now proposes to overhaul agreements built upon decades of negotiations among ranchers, conservationists, sportsmen, industries, and agencies. On Oct. 11, Bureau of Land Management (U.S. Department of the Interior) officially announced a scoping process to revise 98 land-use management plans developed to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse across 10 Western States.

Greater Sage-Grouse is an iconic species of the West, but its populations have declined by about 95 percent. When previous regulatory mechanisms on federal lands did not abate threats to the species, concern grew that the species might be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.


Listing would almost certainly result in costly land-use restrictions and management interventionsInstead, an unprecedented and bipartisan conservation partnership crafted a package of plans to save the Greater Sage-Grouse. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.



This package of plans, finalized in 2015, was the crux of the Interior Department’s decision not to list Greater Sage-Grouse. The plans also ensured persistence of 70 million acres of sagebrush habitat, more than 350 associated wildlife species, a strong outdoor-recreation economy, and a way of life in the West. The plans even accommodated oil and gas extraction in ways that would minimize disturbance of breeding sage-grouse. As former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, the voluntary efforts among private landowners, agencies, and partner organizations were “good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities.”

Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, described the historic agreement between government, birders, ranchers, and Big Oil to the New York Times this way, “We had settled on the biggest landscape conservation deal ever made.”

Now Secretary Zinke wants to break the deal.

In an Aug. 4 memo, Zinke directed the Department of Interior to revisit the painstakingly crafted 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans and implement a course of action that will — among other things — revise policies, modify or remove Sage-Grouse Focal Areas or Priority Habitat Management Areas, reduce the rigor of adaptive management decisions, streamline waivers, exemptions, and use-authorizations, and open 10 million acres of the last healthy breeding areas to mineral development.

What will this mean for the sage-grouse? If the conservation plans are revoked and aggressive development resumed, Greater Sage-Grouse populations are forecast to plummet by up to one-third by 2050, again raising the probability of Endangered Species listing.

In addition to jeopardizing populations of Greater Sage-Grouse, Zinke’s proposed changes could devastate local economies and reduce opportunities for outdoor recreation, which generate $1 billion annually in sagebrush country. Federal listing would cost billions in lost economic opportunity and place energy-dependent economies of many Western states at risk. This is why even unlikely allies, like ConocoPhillips, PacifiCorp, and Beef USA, are on-board with the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Indeed, Wyoming’s Republican governor, Matt Mead, explained “mineral companies need long-term predictability as they decide where to put capital. We can’t have wholesale changes in wildlife management every four or eight years. I don’t think that is the best way to sustain populations or provide the necessary predictability to industry and business in our states.”

Efforts to revise the sage-grouse management plans violate the best available science, place Western economies and communities at risk, and are ill-timed because existing plans haven’t been given a chance to work. These efforts also undermine the public-private partnerships for which the Interior Department has been advocating to meet social and environmental needs on federal lands. Zinke may claim that “No one loves the sage grouse more than I do”, but his actions are proving otherwise.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and in the Department of Natural Resources. John Fitzpatrick is the Louis Agassiz Fuertes professor and director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Both are faculty fellows at Cornell University'sAtkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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