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Idaho wary of Obama 'leftovers' working on sage grouse plan

FILE - In this April 22, 2015 file photo, a male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours outside Baggs, Wyo. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter says the state has to be vigilant monitoring the federal government's creation of a new sage grouse conservation plan because of federal employees who worked on the previous plan that caused Otter to file a lawsuit. (Dan Cepeda /The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)
October 17, 2017 - 3:01 PM

BOISE, Idaho - Idaho has to be vigilant monitoring the federal government's creation of a new sage grouse conservation plan because of federal employees who worked on the previous plan that's too restrictive, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said.

"You have to know and you have to realize that there are a lot of prior administration folks still in those bureaus," Otter told state workers at an Idaho Land Board meeting Tuesday. "We have to recognize that we also have a lot of leftovers that were designers of the sage brush focal areas."

Otter has complained bitterly about the 2015 sage grouse conservation plan put in place by former President Barack Obama that rejected Idaho's suggested sage grouse protection strategies as inadequate. Instead, the federal plan included focal areas with added restrictions on development and grazing.

But last week the Interior Department opened a public comment period seeking to amend the 2015 plan, which has various degrees of backing from different states.

"I think we already know that Montana, Wyoming and Colorado are pushing for no changes or minor changes whereas Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon are with the other side," Otter said.

He said he's never argued with other governors about their sage grouse plans, "but I've said let me have my plan, too."

Otter filed a lawsuit shortly after the 2015 plan came out, contending the Obama administration acted illegally by imposing federal land-use restrictions. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in January, but Otter in March appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That case is still active.

"The BLM is looking forward to working closely with a cross-section of Idahoans — including the State government — to determine what changes may be warranted to BLM Idaho's sage grouse plans," the agency said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.

John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert, said political appointees in the Obama administration engineered the focal areas.

"The political people are gone," he said. "The careerists who remain aren't leftovers. They are trained professionals who have experience. My take is that the careerists have to work with what is developed above them."

In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a review of federal efforts to conserve the imperiled sage grouse to ensure that officials in 11 Western states where the bird lives are fully consulted.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department withdrew protections for 10 million acres of federal lands used by the threatened sage grouse to open it up for energy development.

Sage grouse are ground-dwelling, chicken-sized birds. About 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million. The males are known for their strutting courtship ritual on breeding grounds called leks. They produce a bubble-type sound from a pair of inflated air sacks on their necks.

Idaho officials say state efforts to conserve sage grouse habitat have paid off, notably with Rangeland Fire Protection Associations that allow ranchers to quickly respond to nearby wildfires on state or federal lands before they become the giant rangeland wildfires that have plagued parts of the West in recent decades and destroyed vast stretches of sage grouse habitat.

In general, the state's plan aims to protect sage grouse habitat by preventing large rangeland wildfires and fighting back an invasive and fire-prone plant called cheatgrass that uses fire to displace sage brush.

State officials say restrictions on cattle grazing and mining are overly burdensome.

"We certainly need major changes through this plan amendment process as we've been disproportionately affected by these top-down directives at the 11th hour under the past administration," Dustin Miller, administrator for the Idaho Governor's Office of Species Conservation, told the Land Board.

The Interior Department is taking comments on amendments to the 2015 plan through Nov. 27. No public meetings are scheduled.

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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