AP

When the U.S. Department of the Interior finalized conservation plans across Western states in lieu of listing the greater sage grouse as an endangered species, federal officials heralded the efforts as an unprecedented collaboration that would protect the threatened bird.

But that was in 2015, when Sally Jewell was the interior secretary and Ryan Zinke was a congressman from Montana who argued that the states could handle wildlife management better than Washington. Zinke’s confirmation as President Donald Trump’s interior secretary fueled speculation among some conservationists that the plans’ survival was at risk, and last month, a line in a New York Times story about Vice President Mike Pence seemed to confirm those fears. One area of particular focus in the first two months of Pence’s vice presidency, the paper reported, was “stripping protections for the sage grouse to ease development of lands in the West.”

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There appears to be some disagreement about this though, as a spokesman for Pence told Fusion he was unaware of “any focus by the vice president regarding the sage grouse.”

“It is my understanding this issue is being reviewed at the agency level, but nothing has been decided,” said Marc Lotter, Pence’s press secretary. “The administration will continue to be active in implementing the president’s agenda to grow the economy and create jobs, which includes a thorough review of the policies of the previous administration.”

Conservation under Trump

Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity, said it would be hard for someone in the Trump administration to roll back the sage grouse plan with a secretarial order. But there are other ways to undo the Obama administration’s work—in Congress. Legislation that was filed by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), for example, would effectively freeze the plans for 10 years, she said, “and that’s tantamount to no plan.”

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Though the Center for Biological Diversity was among other environmental groups that felt the plans didn’t go far enough to adequately protect the greater sage grouse, Spivak said it was a step in the right direction.

“The large majority of voters want to see public lands protected for wildlife, clean water, recreation,” Spivak said. “Here you have the administration, and now reaching a level of Pence, clearly saying that they view public lands for plundering, for mining and fracking, and for profits for the fossil fuel industry.”

Spivak had been bracing for western conservation plans to come under increased scrutiny since Trump’s victory in November, but she was surprised that the sage grouse issue had apparently drawn Pence’s attention enough to warrant mention.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based association representing oil and gas companies in the West, meanwhile questioned whether Pence is really involved. The interior department is surely working on the plans, she said, “but I can’t imagine it would rise to the level of Vice President Pence at this point.”

Sgamma is hopeful, though, that Bishop’s legislation has legs. The Western Energy Alliance considers the current plans draconian, and dismissive of local and industry measures to protect the sage grouse. The bill filed by Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and proponent of decreasing federal public lands in the West in general, would give the states some room to prove that the plans they had proposed to protect the sage grouse will work.

“Ideally the federal government would work with the states and honor state plans which are very protective of the sage grouse,” she said. “And they’re tailored for the actual types of habitat that are contained in the state.”

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A spokesman for the interior department declined to answer questions, but the agency sent a statement saying Zinke “has made clear his commitment to working with, rather than against, local communities and being a good neighbor to private landowners.”

“The department is looking forward to working with state and local partners to ensure we are striking a true balance between both conservation and responsible and multiple use of our public lands,” the statement says.

Sage grouse problems

Today there are an estimated 200,000-500,000 greater sage grouse in the 173-million acre range in 11 western states where they’re found, including Montana and Utah. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in 2015 that the bird is relatively abundant and doesn’t face the risk of extinction in the foreseeable future and withdrew it as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But, that decision was made following the conservation efforts that may now be in peril.

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Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, said their creation was a collaborative process that included ranchers, developers, and miners, among others.

“Every stakeholder in the Western sagebrush country” worked together to avoid an Endangered Species listing, he said.

A similar deal kept the dunes sagebrush lizard off the endangered species list in 2012 after the federal government and Texas and New Mexico landowners agreed on measures intended to protect the species, such as refraining from drilling for oil and natural gas in some areas.

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Land fragmentation is one of the biggest threats to the sage grouse, Rutledge said. Breaking up the landscape with drilling pads, for example, disturbs the birds’ habitat but the plans limit that, he said.

“I would hope we would have better sense than throwing out 10 years of hard work by hundreds of people who live out here and live with these plans,” Rutledge said. “To interrupt that process now seems misguided to me.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In February, members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works considered how to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act. A powerful conservation tool, critics argue that it can obstruct economic development and burden landowners. At the hearing, Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, said he and others are concerned the law “has been implemented in a manner that harms Arkansas families, farmers, businesses and communities, with disputable benefits at times to wildlife.” John Barrasso, the committee’s chairman, wants to give private landowners and industry groups more input—part of a bigger trend in prioritizing fossil fuels and industry over conservation and anti-pollution measures across the Trump administration.

Canary in the coal mine

Christian Hagen, senior research faculty at Oregon State University, said the best way to think about the sage grouse is as, well, a canary in a coal mine. The bird is an indicator species, he said, tipping off scientists to the ecosystem’s overall health. If grouse disappear from the landscape, that means something’s wrong on a much larger scale.

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It would be a shame if the administration rolled back the progress that’s been made so far, Hagen said, but just like some groups sued the Obama administration over the land management regulations, he expects supporters of the plans will sue the Trump administration.

“I like to let science rule the day myself,” he said. “And we’ll be right back in this legal situation of the bird being considered for protection. I guess I’d rather see dollars going to conservation and proactive solutions for those that are utilizing the sagebrush ecosystem and also trying to maintain these iconic species on landscape.”