US officials move to ease Obama-era drilling restrictions

The Trump administration moved forward Thursday with plans to ease restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other activities across millions of acres in the American West that were put in place to protect an imperiled bird species.

Land management documents released by the Interior Department show the administration intends to open more areas to leasing and allow waivers for drilling to encroach into the habitat of greater sage grouse.

The ground-dwelling bird ranges across about 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers) in parts of 11 Western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Its numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

Federal officials under President Barack Obama in 2015 adopted a sweeping set of land use restrictions intended to benefit grouse.

But President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have vowed to open public lands to drilling, and grouse protections have long been viewed by the energy industry as an obstacle to development.

Sage grouse are large, ground-dwelling birds known for an elaborate mating ritual in which males strut around breeding grounds with large, puffed-out air sacs protruding from their chests.

They once numbered in the millions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now estimates the population at 200,000 to 500,000. Energy development, disease and other causes have decimated populations in some areas.

The Trump administration’s proposal would reverse or modify the Obama-era protections in seven states — Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho and Oregon.

A draft version of the Interior Department proposal released in May drew a sharp backlash from conservation groups and wildlife advocates. They said the changes would disrupt sage grouse breeding areas and could push the birds onto the endangered species list.

Governors from several western states also raised concerns, over a related federal directive that would limit a type of land swap that can be used to preserve habitat for the birds.

Following Thursday’s release of environmental studies analyzing the changes in each state, governors and the public get another chance to weigh in before a final decision is expected in early 2019.

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Follow Matthew Brown at https://twitter.com/matthewbrownap

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