Some conservationists are crying fowl over their difficulty trying to prepare protests of the Bureau of Land Management's proposed greater sage-grouse plan revisions due to intermittent access to agency websites following the partial government shutdown.
The Western Watersheds Project says the 30-day period to file protests should be extended beyond their deadline due to the issue.
Those deadlines are Jan. 9 in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and Idaho. Wyoming's deadline already was extended to Jan. 23 for the sake of state and local partners, the BLM has said.
John Swartout, senior policy adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said extending the protest periods could lead to new governors in several states, including Colorado, weighing in on the plans, perhaps due to pressure from interest groups. That could complicate efforts by the BLM to finalize plan amendments they've developed while working with states.
The Trump administration is working to revise resource management plans that were amended in 2015 to include protections aimed at helping keeping the greater sage-grouse from requiring listing as a threatened or endangered species. The proposed revisions in Colorado would open about 350 square miles to oil and gas leasing in areas where the birds breed, but under provisions barring surface disturbance.
The proposed amendments are accompanied by lengthy environmental impact statements. Western Watersheds Project representatives say it's hard enough to study and comment on plans in each state over just a month that includes holidays, but the website problem has made it all the more difficult. Links to the plans and environmental documents have on occasion not worked, instead containing messages noting the shutdown. The links were working Monday.
Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watershed Project, said the link problem combined with the short protest period to begin with suggests a need to push back the protest deadline.
"This was already a huge volume of documents that would preclude meaningful public participation, and now even more so," she said.
BLM media officials did not respond to requests for comment, presumably due to the shutdown.
The plans also are subject to a longer, 60-day period where each governor can review the proposed amendments for consistency with state and local laws and regulations. But Swartout said states had agreed with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to raise any consistency issues before the end of the protest period, with the idea of having them resolved while existing governors who have been working with the BLM on the plans are still in office.
Hickenlooper is term-limited and is being succeeded by fellow Democrat Jared Polis Jan. 8. Democrat Steve Sisolak won in Nevada, in a race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. New Republican governors will be succeeding Republican predecessors in Wyoming and Idaho.
Polis could use the consistency review opportunity to revisit the sage-grouse issue even under the current deadlines.
"I wouldn't want to open up that Pandora's box if I was the new governor, but that's just me," Swartout said.
Swartout — whose last day in his current job is Jan. 7, after which he will become executive director of Colorado Counties Inc. — said he's been advising the Polis transition team on the greater sage-grouse matter, but it's ultimately up to the governor-elect how to proceed on the issue. Swartout expects Polis to be under pressure from certain groups to revisit the matter.
Anderson said the Trump administration has been focused on aligning the plans with states' sage-grouse agendas, "and so having different leadership in those states would suggest they might shift (agendas) substantially again and it would be great to wait to see what the new governors want to do to conserve the species."
Swartout said he thinks the fact that some conservation groups are unhappy with the proposed plan revisions in Colorado, and so are some counties that would like to see more oil and gas development allowed, suggests that the revisions have "struck the right balance."