GUEST COLUMN: Approach to sage grouse conservation hurts Montana’s people, economy

By Justin Schaaf - February 4, 2018 - Originally published in the Ravalli Republic

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke long has long claimed to be a “Roosevelt Republican.” He has said time and again that he will stand with the West and not allow the overreaching arm of Washington, D.C., to hold us within its grasp. But his recent actions have reflected a different approach.

In 2015, a diverse group of stakeholders including governors, resource managers, ranchers, farmers, sportsmen and women, business owners, scientists, and energy developers came together as a community to openly and honestly discuss how best to manage our public lands for true multiple use. The result was a common sense land-management strategy that prioritizes the interests of both our natural landscapes and our economy.

The Bureau of Land Management’s 2015 greater sage grouse plans have served our state well in the early stages of implementation. In order to achieve their true potential for local Montana stakeholders, we must stay the course – and attain certainty not only for fish and wildlife interests but for local businesses, including ranchers and members of the energy industry.

That’s why I was surprised when I heard that Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration were considering drastic changes to these widely supported plans. For years, state-centered and community-driven land-management plans have allowed the West to stay open for business while at the same time elevating conservation efforts that provide high quality wildlife habitat on public lands and are consequently valued for hunting, fishing and various outdoor recreation.

In response to Secretary Zinke’s proposed changes to these popular plans, Westerners spoke up. The BLM received more than 265,000 comments from concerned Americans, and the U.S. Forest Service heard from an additional 130,000 citizens during each of their comment periods. Overwhelmingly these voices urged the Department of the Interior to defend the existing sage grouse plans and the West – something that Montanans and folks across the region worked so hard to build together.

Despite the loud and clear objections from hardworking folks in these local communities, Secretary Zinke decided to prioritize special interests and their lobbyists – exactly what he had promised not to do upon his arrival in Washington. These changes came straight from big-moneyed lobbyist playbooks and drastically rolled back safeguards put in place for wildlife habitat. Any changes that weaken the science-based conservation elements of these plans not only harm the sage grouse; they also harm elk, mule deer and pronghorn who depend upon the big sagebrush sea we all love.

Most concerning, however, is the precedent these changes set for Washington politicians to write off the voices of local Western stakeholders and essentially tell them that their voice doesn’t matter. Not only is Secretary Zinke willing to overlook the thousands of comments in support of the existing land-management plans; he also has claimed that he didn’t receive the comments at all, implying that only a mere fraction of comments received by the department were worthy of his attention.

To add insult to injury, his changes to the sage grouse plans were released before the public comment period for the USFS even closed, depriving stakeholders of the opportunity to be heard and their views fairly considered.

Secretary Zinke has a golden opportunity to practice what he has preached: Listen to Western stakeholders. What we’re asking for now should be clear: Keep the collaborative greater sage grouse plans intact. It’s what’s best for Montana and the West. It’s what Theodore Roosevelt would have done.

Justin Schaaf is a board member of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and a sixth generation Montanan who is raising his young family in Fort Peck near the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

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