In addition to the Greater sage grouse, the "sagebrush sea" across 11 Western states supports large animals like elk, pronghorn and mule deer. (Skeeze/Pixabay)

CARSON CITY, Nev. – Conservation groups are slamming a proposal released Thursday by the Trump administration to allow more oil and gas drilling in sage-grouse habitat.

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The move blows up the mega-deal reached in 2015 to protect the bird and 350 other species that depend on the massive sagebrush ecosystem that stretches through the West, from Nevada and California to Montana.

Ken Rait, project director of the The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Lands Program, says the original deal set aside areas for fossil-fuel development, but the Bureau of Land Management is paving the way to approve even more.

“The BLM is choosing to up-end scientifically-based, locally-supported plans to benefit the energy development industry, for whom four-fifths of the public lands are not enough,” says Rait.

Sage-grouse habitat has already shrunk to half its historical size. The Obama-era deal was designed to prevent the bird’s population from declining so much that it would qualify for endangered-species status – progress that could now be reversed.

The administration claims the 2015 plans didn’t give states enough flexibility to allow exceptions for favored projects.

Matt Holloran is a sage-grouse expert with environmental consulting firm Operational Conservation who worked on the original plans. Holloran says the new approach favors commercial interests over all the other stakeholders, especially sportsmen’s and conservation groups.

“It’s a mistake. I don’t think they have any scientific basis for making the changes,” says Holloran. “They’re losing a range-wide landscape scale perspective on grouse conservation which I think was the critical role that the federal plans played beyond the state plans.”

The plans are being published in the Federal Register today, which kicks off a 30-day public-comment period. The parts that affect California and Nevada cover 2.36 million acres in Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Sierra and Washoe counties.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.