Secretary of the Interior Zinke has directed that the Bureau of Land Management immediately begin implementing the recommendations in his Sage-Grouse Review Team’s report, which was was released today, concerning the 2015 greater sage-grouse amendments to federal land use management plans. (Prior post on Sage-Grouse Review Team here.) Among other things, such as coordinating federal mitigation policy with state mitigation approaches, the Trump Administration will now be moving to “[r]emove all [sagebrush focal areas (SFAs)] and the management actions tied to SFAs.” This would include the pending withdrawal for up to 20 years of over 10 million acres of SFAs on public lands in six western states from mineral location and entry under the General Mining Law . (Prior posts on withdrawal here and here.) The report also recognizes a short-term “[n]eed to clarify under what circumstances or how the [land use management] plans recognize valid existing rights.” Because valid existing rights (i.e., a mining claim within which a valuable mineral deposit has been discovered) are relevant if a withdrawal is approved, this recommended clarification indicates that the Trump Administration may well withdraw the SFAs for a short time while it moves forward with amending the plans to remove the SFAs altogether.
This likely approach reflects three realities. First, a September 24th decision deadline regarding the pending withdrawal is rapidly approaching. Second, it is impossible to prepare and adopt new plan amendments prior to that date. Third, any new plan amendments will need to account for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s reliance on the 2015 amendments when deciding not to list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Indeed, the Sage-Grouse Review Team’s report states that federal and state governments remain committed to avoiding a future ESA listing. A short-term withdrawal of the SFAs would provide time to approve the new plan amendments while concurrently addressing the interrelated and underlying ESA considerations.