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Watchdog Group Calls Foul on Leaked Oil and Gas Memo on Sage Grouse

In 2015, the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture completed plans to manage the greater sage-grouse's habitat across 70 million acres in 11 Western states. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
In 2015, the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture completed plans to manage the greater sage-grouse's habitat across 70 million acres in 11 Western states. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
August 23, 2017

DENVER - A document obtained by a watchdog group suggests that the U.S. Department of the Interior could be taking orders from the oil and gas industry.

Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, said his group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between energy-industry representatives and staff who worked on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's sage-grouse review. O'Neill said a memo from the Western Energy Alliance bears a striking resemblance to the federal agency's plan of action.

"Secretary Zinke and the review team took the recommendations of the oil and gas industry, pretty much universally, over other users - which include the hunting community, ranching community, our agricultural communities," O'Neill said.

The leaked memo claimed the current Greater Sage-Grouse Management Plan costs jobs and stunts economic growth. However, O'Neill said removing protections developed by states, federal agencies, scientists and private landowners could put the iconic bird at risk of being listed under the Endangered Species Act. He said that would cause even greater economic disruptions.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

O'Neill said Zinke also has been adding oil-and-gas insiders to key Interior Department positions. According to his group's profiles of 63 political appointees, most are former lobbyists or have industry connections. He said only four have experience in conservation.

"And when we're put in a situation where our federal government and our largest land-managing agency is controlled by private industry," O'Neill said, "we lose the opportunity to have input in how our lands - as public-land owners - are managed."

He pointed to a side-by-side comparison of the leaked memo and the Interior Department's recommendations, which O'Neill believes confirms the agency ignored the pleas of Gov. John Hickenlooper, several other western governors and other stakeholders, to maintain the current sage-grouse plan.

The memo is online here, and the side-by-side comparison is here.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO