The Interior Department on Monday took steps to overhaul important aspects of an Obama-era program to protect sage grouse, a move which will allow more flexibility to mining and expansion of oil development opportunities, prohibited earlier in the areas where the birds are found.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his deputy David Bernhardt to make nine broad changes to the program, Reuters reported.
Zinke said with the new rules in place, the states and the federal government can work together to protect the birds while ensuring economic growth and job opportunities were not impeded, reports said.
The decision will gladden the drilling industry which has long complained the Obama administration’s conservation strategy was too restrictive and costly.
However, it angered environmental groups that claimed the new rules would spell doom for the unique, chicken-sized bird that lives in the threatened sagebrush ecosystem in 11 western states.
“By reopening the federal plans, we risk undermining and undoing one of the greatest collaborative conservation efforts in our nation’s history," Eric Holst, associate vice president of Working Lands, Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Putting politics over science would only increase the likelihood of a listing (as threatened or endangered) in the future,” he added.
The habitat of the sage grouse is currently spread across 173 million acres in the U.S., and is believed was once spread across 290 million acres, National Geographic reported.
It is believed that projects for the development of methane gas in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin led to decline of the population of the birds by 79 percent.
However, the sage grouse is not the only species that is threatened by mining and oil projects. Here is a list of a few more species facing similar threats:
Lesser Prairie Chicken
In March 2014, the Obama administration updated the status of lesser prairie chicken and put it under the threatened category, a step below the endangered category. The decision was made as the population of the birds registered a sharp decline as a result of habitat loss due to gas drillings, construction of power lines and wind turbines. States like Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma subsequently filed lawsuits claiming the decision would hamper economic growth, reports said.
Spectacled eiders are medium-sized sea ducks around 50 cm in length, and are listed as threatened in the U.S. The population of the birds — in its Alaskan habitat — decreased by an alarming 96 percent in a span of 35 years from 1957 and 1992. The decline was attributed to developments related to oil and gas, and climate change, reports said.
The tallest North American bird is an endangered crane species known for its whooping sound. It faces threat from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would be on the birds' migratory path from Canada to Texas. While there is fear that oil leaks and other hazards from the proposed project would harm the species, pipeline developers TransCanada have refuted such claims, reports said.
Wyoming Pocket Gopher
It is estimated that only about 40 Wyoming pocket gophers exist today in Sweetwater county, Wyoming, and Carbon county, Pennsylvania. It is believed that increasing vehicular traffic in the area as a result of oil and gas activities led to loss of habitat for the species, reports said.
Kentucky Arrow Darter
The small fish found only in southeastern Kentucky was brought under the Endangered Species Act in 2016 after population started declining since the 1990s. Reports claimed that surface coal mining has polluted the stream in which the fish lives, leading to habitat loss.