Thirteen Democratic senators, including Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, are questioning what role the U.S. Forest Service played in the Trump administration’s recent decision to review protections for the greater sage grouse.
In a letter sent Dec. 20 to Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, the senators pose a list of 10 questions stemming from federal orders to review the 2015 sage grouse plans, which sought to keep the peculiar bird off the Endangered Species List.
Those plans, the senators argue, were the hard-won results of negotiations between farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, conservationists and government officials to preserve sage grouse habitat while balancing rural economies. In June, however, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued an order to re-examine the plans to see if any provisions might hinder job creation and energy development.
Since then, the Forest Service has also announced its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for multiple national forests and grasslands in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, which the agency says may warrant changes in land management for the sage grouse.
The notice includes:
• Idaho and southwest Montana (Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Boise, Caribou-Targhee, Salmon-Challis and Sawtooth national forests, and Curlew National Grassland).
• Nevada (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest).
• Utah (Ashley, Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-La Sal and Uinta-Wasatch-Cache national forests).
• Wyoming and Colorado (Bridger-Teton and Medicine Bow-Routt national forests, and Thunder Basin National Grassland).
The deadline for public comment is Jan. 5, though the senators are asking the Forest Service to extend that period by at least 45 days to account for the acreage and stakeholders involved.
Sage grouse are found in 11 Western states, and are known for their elaborate courtship and mating rituals. The population was once estimated at 16 million birds, but has since dwindled to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. More than half the remaining habitat is on land managed by either the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.
In addition to Wyden and Merkley, the letter was signed by Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray; New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich; Montana Sen. Jon Tester; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto; California Sen. Dianne Feinstein; Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow; Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen; and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed. All are Democrats.
Among their questions, they ask how the Forest Service was involved in working with the Department of the Interior on its recommendation to review sage grouse plans, and if the agency held any meetings with local stakeholders.
They also ask why the Forest Service is considering changes when the BLM’s National Technical Team, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Conservation Objectives Team, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Summary Report and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies all agreed on key elements in the final 2015 sage grouse plans.
A spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. said they have received the letter and are working on a reply.