Administration Announces Controversial Plan To Protect Sage Grouse

May 29, 2015
Originally published on May 29, 2015 12:59 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now to the latest news on one funky-looking bird. The greater sage grouse is smack at the center of a debate pitting environmentalists against minors, ranchers and the energy industry. The bird nests in grasslands across the American West and the Obama administration has announced a plan to protect its habitat by limiting energy development. It is possibly the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Let's get you familiar with the greater sage grouse real quick by going to a field in Utah, about an hour's drive from Salt Lake City, where a couple-dozen male sage grouse about the size of chickens are strutting their spiky tail feathers, puffing and popping. While a nearby songbird sings, this is a breeding ground, a lek in sage grouse vernacular. And under the new plan announced by the Department of the Interior, this lek, like others on federal lands from Colorado to Washington state, will be given a surrounding buffer zone, where things that disturb these finicky birds would be prohibited or limited, a point that's controversial. Much of the prime habitat for the bird is also prime real estate for energy - oil and gas, wind and solar. And under the new rule, more than 40 million acres are potentially off-limits to development.

KATHLEEN SGAMMA: That is an awful lot of land.

ROTT: Kathleen Sgamma is with Western Energy Alliance, which represents energy and gas companies. She says that sage grouse and energy development are compatible given proper planning.

SGAMMA: But here comes a federal plan, which is just, you know, blanket puts areas off-limits.

ROTT: Sgamma says it will cost states thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue. And that the states, not the feds, should have final say, a sentiment that's shared by some Western politicians. Jim Lyons, the Department of the Interior's deputy assistant secretary, disagrees. He says there's a way it can all coexist and points to Wyoming as an example.

JIM LYONS: They've demonstrated the ability to protect important areas and continue with the oil and gas development that is so critical to their economy. So I think the evidence is there at a state level it can be done.

ROTT: And he says it's not just about the sage grouse. It's about the mule deer, the pronghorns, the golden eagles and 350-plus other species that call the American West's vast sagebrush country home. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.