Leave grouse protocol alone

Aug 31, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke probably caught a few people off guard last week when he decided against rescinding national monument status for more than a dozen recently designated monuments, most of them in our part of the country.

Then, just a few days ago, he also announced that he would support the effort to ban gold mining in areas of Montana immediately adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

In both cases, it was assumed that the conservative former congressman from Montana would follow the lead of the Trump administration in relaxing federal control over these prized properties.

The national monuments in particular seemed like a done deal. But indications are that Zinke listened to public opinion and decided to leave them alone (some border adjustments still are possible).

Now, Zinke can to take another step in this new direction. He ought to leave in place the sage grouse protections formulated through an innovative process that began in Wyoming.

Earlier, it was announced from the White House that the sage grouse protocol would be reviewed, because the administration tended to think it was too restrictive for industrial land developers. As typically is the case in the new presidency, the words "Obama era" were used in most references to the sage grouse policy, as in "we are taking another look at the overly restrictive Obama-era Sage grouse rules."

That would be asking for trouble. Once Secretary Zinke and others have a look at what the Wyoming working group on sage grouse really accomplished, they might well realize that the new protocol is much better than the alternative.

That alternative was the likely placement of the sage grouse on the endangered species list. And if anyone thinks the rules hammered out by the working group are restrictive, wait until they get a load of what an endangered species listing entails.

The sage grouse working group brought together leaders in government, environmental protection, recreation, industry, and land-use planning to come up with an acceptable arrangement that would keep the bird off the endangered species list. Rightfully, it has been hailed as a breakthrough in species threat response.

Further, it has barely been given a chance to work yet, although in places that are being monitored, sage grouse numbers have mostly held steady and, in some cases, grown. Improvements in Wyoming drought conditions and other key grouse habitat factors have helped. So far, the industry elements that supported it are holding firm.

Remember, it was the Obama administration that decided against listing the sage is grouse in the first place, citing the accomplishments of the non-government working group at coming up with a better plan. That, too, astonished some observers who presumed that the fowl was headed to endangered-species listing.

As Secretary Zinke and the new administration cast a critical eye over everything Obama did, in the case of the sage grouse they ought to come to the conclusion that this new process worked well, and that they aren't going to be able to do much better.

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