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SALT LAKE CITY — Federal land managers have formally started a process to replace 2019 changes made to its sagebrush plan, considered vital for the long-term health of the sage grouse, a bird species found in Utah and across the West that has experienced dwindling population numbers blamed on habitat disruptions.
The Bureau of Land Management began public scoping on a new plan Friday, which will continue into early 2022. A new plan may be proposed sometime next year.
"The BLM is committed to reversing long-term downward trends in sage grouse populations and habitats in a manner that fulfills our multiple-use and sustained yield mission and meets the needs of Western communities," said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning in a statement Friday. "We remain dedicated to working closely with states, local governments, tribes and other partners who have worked in a collaborative and bipartisan fashion for more than a decade toward sustainable and balanced management of sagebrush habitat."
The greater sage grouse has been at the center of environmental worries in the West for some time. The bird species can be found in Utah, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
A U.S. Geological Survey report published in March found there are between 200,000 and 500,000 greater sage grouses today, an estimate down 80% from 1965 populations and 40% from 2002 figures. It puts the species close to being considered threatened.
The Audobon Society wrote that declines are associated with changes to the bird's natural habitat, including land used for oil and gas development or converted to farmland within the states the species is found in.
The BLM first issued a plan for sage grouse habitat in 2015, under the Obama administration. Then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said intense wildfires, invasive species and development had also altered the West's sagebrush landscape, which she argued threatened wildlife, ranching and the country's "outdoor heritage."
But the plan also drew some criticism. Former Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, who was the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee at the time, called it a plan aimed at "controlling land, not saving the bird."
But the plan went untouched — albeit ignored, according to current agency officials — until the BLM altered the plan in 2019, under the Trump administration. Then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert applauded the changes as an improvement at the time, saying it was "incorporating the best available science and aligning with the state's 2019 Conservation Plan."
Environmental groups disagreed, arguing that sage grouse habitat needs would be ignored whenever oil and gas companies wanted somewhere new to drill.
The 2019 change ultimately led to a lawsuit and a federal judge in Idaho granted a temporary injunction regarding the 2019 plan in Utah and the other Western states. Per the bureau's website, the injunction remained in place through the end of President Donald Trump's term, meaning only the 2015 plan could be used.
Bureau officials say that a sagebrush plan helps more than just the sage grouse. They say the bird is one of over 350 species that continues to "experience pressure" from land development, invasive grasses, wildfire and drought.
"The 2015 plans established a solid foundation but actions during the previous administration kept those plans from being put into action," Stone-Manning said. "As we move to build upon the earlier plans, we are asking whether there are other steps we should take given new science to improve outcomes for sage grouse and also for people in communities across the West who rely on a healthy sagebrush steppe."
Public comments on the scope of an improvement plan can be made on the bureau's website. The agency's website shows that the comment period will last through Feb. 7. There is no timetable for when a new plan would be proposed; that, too, will include a public comment period if and when it's proposed.