Amidst all the federal hubbub last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office made a little-noticed announcement.

In a not-so-subtly worded press release, the former congressman from Montana said he had signed Secretarial Order 3353 “to improve sage grouse conservation and strengthen communication and collaboration between state and federal governments.”

The order creates teams to go back and look at state and federal sage grouse plans with the goal of getting more input from the states. Zinke’s teams would consider ideas such as establishing state population objectives and a captive breeding program.

Sounds innocent enough, right?

Unfortunately, no. The order is designed to open more sage grouse habitat to oil and gas development.

Reading through the release, it doesn’t take a secret decoder ring to guess Zinke’s real motive.

Phrases such as “will also consider local economic growth and job creation” and “in a manner that allows both wildlife and local economies to thrive” are the first clues. There’s also a line about referring to the policies in Secretarial Order 3349, American Energy Independence.

The release goes on to say that a team of experts will “focus on addressing the principal threats to rangeland health and sage-grouse habitat — invasive grasses and wildland fire.”

Hmmm. There seems to be one threat missing. (Hint: It rhymes with “soil and grass envelopment.”)

If there was any doubt, Zinke later clarified things during a press call.

“There have been some complaints by some of the governors that their ability to use federal lands — whether it’s from oil and gas, recreation, timber, across the board — that some of the heavy-handedness on habitats don’t allow for some of those uses, and they’ve come up with what they believe [are] innovative plans and workarounds,” he said.

OK, fair enough. Arguably, the Trump administration’s one “success” to date, besides putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, has been taking a wrecking ball to environmental regulations across the board. Why should we expect anything different with sage grouse?

But there’s a big problem: Ultimately, Order 3353 hurts not only sage grouse but also the oil and gas industries it’s designed to promote.

In 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed sage grouse “warranted but precluded,” meaning that the birds need protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the service had to deal with more imperiled species first.

Instead the feds, the states, conservation groups and industry developed plans to provide sage grouse with protections. These protections — such as establishing buffers to development around sage grouse breeding grounds — were specifically designed to avoid the Endangered Species Act.

By compromising those sage grouse plans, Zinke runs the risk of triggering another ESA review and subjecting the oil and gas industry to much stricter regulations.

In case you’re wondering whether this concern is all a liberal fantasy, consider a May 2017 letter to Zinke by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Mead and Hickenlooper served as co-chairs of the Sage Grouse Task Force.

“We understand that you are considering changing the department’s approach to sage grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” the letter reads. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”

The letter goes on to outline how the state sage grouse plans were a collaborative effort. “Wholesale changes to the land-use plans are likely not necessary at this time,” it said.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of serving a short stint on the Upper Snake River Basin Sage-Grouse Conservation Local Working Group. (For the record, I was out of my depth and my contribution was minimal.) Composed primarily of biologists and wildlife managers, the group was one of many around the state that spent years working on plans to protect sage grouse in the state.

The plan our local working group created was exceptional, both in its detail and thoughtfulness.

Upending these sage grouse plans now, after so many years of hard work, does nothing for sage grouse and nothing for oil and gas development.

Secretary Zinke should think carefully about tinkering with a plan that keeps the Endangered Species Act at bay. When Gov. Mead — possibly one of the most fossil fuel-friendly politicians in the nation — tells you to back off, that’s probably a good sign that your idea is bad for industry.

Cory Hatch is a writer whose work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, MSNBC online and Jackson Hole Magazine. Columns expressly represent the views of the author. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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