Tales from the swamp: sage-grouse edition

Second-ranking Interior Department official set to gut key protections for iconic bird at behest of his former client, a major oil and gas trade association

Jesse Prentice-Dunn


Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and his former clients

Senior officials in the Trump administration’s Interior Department have rightly earned reputations as swamp creatures, serving the extractive industries that once employed them instead of the American public. Now, it appears the number two official at Interior, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, is set to grant the wishes of one of his former clients, a massive oil and gas trade association, by gutting critical conservation plans for the imperiled sage-grouse.

Sage-grouse courtship display | Bureau of Land Management

The sage-grouse is a chicken-sized bird that once inhabited sagebrush country all over the West. The grouse is frequently referred to as an “indicator species” that can predict the health of other plant and animal species, a sort of “canary in the coal mine.” Development, particularly during recent oil and gas drilling booms, has led populations of the bird to plummet. After years of hard-fought negotiation, the Obama administration, Western governors from both parties, ranchers, and conservationists agreed on a series of plans that would protect the sage-grouse while still allowing for new development.

While Westerners across the political spectrum celebrated the compromise sage-grouse conservation plans, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) did not. The powerful oil and gas trade association, representing the likes of Anadarko, Encana, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon Oil, railed against the plans, alleging they would harm oil and gas producers. Using its Endangered Species Act Watch subsidiary, IPAA began an aggressive campaign to undermine the sage-grouse plans.

David Bernhardt sworn in as Deputy Interior Secretary | DOI Flickr

Under the Trump administration, IPAA found willing partners at the Interior Department who would turn their wishes into action. In his first month on the job, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke found time for a briefing on the sage-grouse in between meetings with executives from Chevron, BP, WPX Energy, and the American Petroleum Institute. Zinke soon picked his deputy, oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt.

After serving at the Interior Department in the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt developed extensive ties to the oil and gas industry, including IPAA. According to financial disclosures, IPAA hired Bernhardt for “legal services” while he worked at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, a major lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Documents show that Bernhardt’s other client included Noble Energy, NRG Energy, Sempra Energy, Statoil, and Cobalt International Energy, just to name a few.

Memo from Secretary Zinke placing Deputy Secretary Bernhardt in charge of reviewing sage-grouse conservation plans | Interior Department

Just three days after Bernhardt was sworn in as Deputy Interior Secretary in the Trump administration, Secretary Zinke put him in charge of efforts to essentially “repeal and replace” the landmark sage-grouse conservation plans. Interior Department emails obtained by the Western Values Project show that IPAA had extensive interaction with the members of Bernhardt’s sage-grouse task force, including specific input into draft documents. Though Bernhardt had promised he would recuse himself from matters involving his former clients, these continued contacts between members of Bernhardt’s task force and IPAA raise significant questions as to whether he is following ethics guidelines.

In one interaction, IPAA’s director of government relations acted on behalf of ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake Energy, and EOG Resources, conveying “a pretty specific sage grouse issue they’d like to have addressed in the final report,” having to do with a “sage grouse map issue.” After IPAA staff followed up, a member of DOI’s sage-grouse team responded, “We are working on it. I have let the Secretary know as well.”

In another, IPAA asked that a DOI report include a positive reference to the potential for captive breeding of sage-grouse. Biologists do not think captive breeding is a viable strategy for the bird, and the governor of Wyoming actively discouraged DOI from pursuing the strategy. The request to tout captive breeding was made at the behest of IPAA Treasurer Diemer True, who stands to profit as the owner of the only facility in Wyoming seeking to breed the bird. Sure enough, the next Interior Department document recommended continuing to pursue captive breeding efforts.

Greater sage-grouse in Wyoming | Jennifer Strickland, Fish and Wildlife Service

While the Interior Department has not yet released new sage-grouse conservation plans, a leaked draft of the Wyoming plan indicates that Interior will grant oil and gas industry requests and slash critical protections for the sage-grouse. In a key change, the draft indicates that drilling will no longer need to be prioritized outside of key habitat, ending an effort to protect some of the best remaining landscapes the grouse relies on. Other changes in the leaked document include exempting more development from environmental reviews.

Given the extensive connections between Deputy Interior Secretary Bernhardt and the oil and gas industry, it will be no surprise when key sage-grouse conservation measures are gutted in final plans. It’s clear that in this administration, industry interests are prioritized over conservation of wildlife and the habitat they depend on. For the sage-grouse, the subject of a win-win compromise for Western interests, Secretary Zinke and Deputy Secretary Bernhardt seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and sentence the species to a continued decline.

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Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Policy Director | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO