In cases where drilling was permitted in the habitat, it came with restrictions such as bans on drilling during mating season. The Obama plan also limited construction of drilling infrastructure, such as pipelines and roads, in sage grouse habitat and required companies that drill in restricted areas to pay into a fund to preserve and protect other habitat areas.
The new Trump proposal, which is expected to be finalized next year, would limit that highly protected area to 1.8 million acres and eliminate the requirement that companies pay into the habitat preservation fund, although companies could pay into it voluntarily.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which published the proposal, said the new plan would not strip away all protections of sage grouse habitat. It would remove the “sagebrush focal areas” designation from the 9 million acres, but she said it would leave other conservation measures in place.
“Taking away the ‘sagebrush focal area’ protection would be removing just one of multiple layers of protection,” said the spokeswoman, Heather Feeney. There would still be buffer zones banning the destruction of sage grouse habitat near nests, and drilling and mining companies would have to apply for waivers to destroy habitat.
However, environmentalists said that would amount to a major weakening of environmental protections, and noted that it might be relatively easy for companies to receive the waivers from an administration that is actively promoting new drilling.
“It’s true that there are still some conservation measures in place,” Nada Culver, a lawyer with The Wilderness Society, said. “But now, if a company says, ‘I don’t want to comply with those protections,’ then the Interior Department can just give them a permit that says, ‘Go ahead, you’re allowed to destroy the habitat.’”
States could opt to keep the Obama-era protections in place, and could also require companies to pay in to similar state-level funds. At least two states, Montana and Oregon, are expected to keep the protections in place, but other states, including Idaho and Utah, plan to follow the loosening of the federal rules.