The Bureau of Land Management confirmed claims from environmental groups that many of their public comments were not included in a recent report on federal plans to revise sage grouse management in the West.
A coalition of 20 environmental advocacy groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society put the number at about 187,000 comments.
The Bureau of Land Management couldn’t confirm the number of missing submissions, but said it was looking into the source of the mistake.
“Apparently, they were never received by BLM and that’s why they did not show up in the final scoping report,” said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management Wednesday. “Just how many we’re missing is unknown. You can’t count what you didn’t receive.”
The bureau was in contact with the groups that raised concerns, he said, and is working with them to get the missing comments included as the review process of the sage grouse plans moves forward.
Environmental groups have been at odds with the Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, over the plans since last year when the administration called for change. They have lobbied in public and private to keep the plans in place.
The disappearance of so many comments to that effect lead some to question how many other voices were not counted, said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president of public lands for the National Wildlife Federation.
The group reported that 328 of its Wyoming comments, and thousands of its comments from other states, appear to be left out of the report.
The group has been told that they can resend those comments and the BLM will note them as an addendum, Stone-Manning said.
But the bigger problem from these group is that the Interior isn’t going to heed the comments that they do have, she said.
“Hundreds of thousands of people chimed in,” she said. “Yet it appears from the report that they are continuing down the path of making changes to these plans when governors and the broader American public has said ‘Please, don’t make wholesale change to these plans.’”
It is not yet clear why the comments were not received by the BLM or the contractor that the agency works with, he said.
“We don’t have a definitive answer, but the signs all point to a technological problem, and not human error,” Smurthwaite said.
Wyoming is home to about 30 percent of the bird’s population and was a key driver of developing a strategy to conserve the bird that focused on landscape management. Federal plans put in place two years ago were bartered among a coalition of private landowners, industry representatives and federal and state agencies.
Some thought the federal plans fell short of protecting the bird, while others thought that the rules needed more work to fairly balance conservation and other interests, like energy development. In any case, the plans staved off an endangered species listing for the plump western bird, saving states like Wyoming from restrictions that would pose significant risk to the state’s fossil fuel industries.
But the plans were opened up last year by the Trump Administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cited western “anger” as a key motive in reevaluating the plans.
He has also noted a need to unleash energy development on public lands and undo restrictions that are unfair to those industries.
Environmental groups have pushed back on the Interior’s direction, fearing an unraveling of key habitat protections and the return of an endangered species designation. Other sage grouse leaders in Wyoming say the plans can handle change if they are done thoughtfully. Most agree a broad stripping of the plans would be bad for the bird and bad for the state.