BILLINGS, Montana — The Trump administration moved forward Thursday with plans to ease restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling, mining and other activities that were put in place to protect an imperiled bird species across millions of acres in the American West.
Land management documents released by the U.S. Interior Department show the administration intends to open more public lands to leasing and allow waivers for drilling to encroach into the habitat of greater sage grouse.
Critics warned the changes could wipe out grouse colonies as drilling disrupts breeding grounds. Federal officials under President Barack Obama in 2015 had adopted a sweeping set of land use restrictions intended to stop the birds’ decline.
Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said the agency was responding to requests by states to give them more flexibility in how public lands are managed. He said the goal to conserve sage grouse was unchanged.
“I completely believe that these plans are leaning forward on the conservation of sage grouse,” Bernhardt told The Associated Press. “Do they do it in exactly the same way? No. We made some change in the plans and got rid of some things that are simply not necessary.”
The changes drew a sharp backlash from conservation groups and wildlife advocates, who warned excessive use of drilling waivers could push sage grouse onto the list of threatened and endangered species.
“If you allow exception after exception, that might make sense for a particular project in a particular spot, but you add them all together and you have death by a thousand cuts,” said National Wildlife Association Vice President Tracy Stone-Manning.
Sage grouse range across about 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers) in parts of 11 Western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Their numbers plummeted in recent decades.
In 2015, after determining the Obama administration’s plans were sufficient to keep the bird from slipping toward extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pledged to revisit its status in five years.
The agency revealed Thursday that it no longer plans that 2020 status review, often a first step toward determining if greater protections are needed.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland told the AP that the Fish and Wildlife Service is not legally required to complete a review. Instead, it will work with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to document the effectiveness of the conservation plans.
Under President Donald Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has vowed to lift obstacles to drilling, and grouse protections have long been viewed by the energy industry as an obstacle to development.
The new plans remove the most protective habitat designations for about 13,000 square miles (34,000 square kilometers) of public land. Those areas, considered essential to the species’ survival, were a centerpiece of the Obama policy. The Trump administration also wants to drop some requirements to prioritize leasing for oil and gas outside sage grouse habitat.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said Thursday’s announcement showed federal officials heeded the state’s desire for changes to the 2015 plans.
“This is a great example of federal leaders listening to state leaders, valuing their expertise, and changing their plans based on that input,” Herbert said in a statement.
Sage grouse are large, ground-dwelling birds known for an elaborate mating ritual in which males strut around breeding grounds with large, puffed-out air sacs protruding from their chests.