Wyoming is expanding its sage grouse protections. Will it work?
Addressing several of Wyoming’s sage grouse decision makers, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) was blunt.
The rancher and influential state politician has grown tired of dealing with the “bobbing ball” of the Endangered Species Act, based on his experience with federal government employees who oversee the landmark, yet controversial environmental law in his dealings with grizzly bears.
“You’re never going to catch them,” Sommers said, referring to keeping up with changes made by the feds. “I hate to see you go down that same path, whether it’s wolves, grizzly bears or whatever. You just can’t catch them.”
Sommers was speaking July 21 at the Sublette County Library. He was sharing his skepticism with three state officials who are in the middle of revising Wyoming’s sage grouse protection map in the hopes of keeping the bird off the ESA list, which could boost grouse protections and curtail industry activity within much of the state’s sagebrush country.
Bob Budd, who chairs Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, told Sommers — the Legislature’s Speaker of the House — that he wished he was in Gillette for a meeting the other day to tell attendees about what it’s like dealing with a federally threatened species.
“What we’re trying to do is do everything we can not to get there,” Budd said, referring to a sage grouse listing. “And I share your pessimism.”
Budd contended the federal government’s sage grouse maps “black the state out,” meaning more expansive land use regulations to protect the bird.
“And I don’t want to go there,” he said.
The team’s overarching goal of its effort to revise its grouse “core areas” — the backbone of the state’s policy — is to convince the federal government that Wyoming is a responsible steward of the sagebrush-obligate species that has collapsed on its watch. To that end, the panel has proposed a series of changes — and they’re mostly expansions — to its sage grouse core area map. The effect, essentially, is that a higher percentage of occupied sage grouse habitat would be protected. Currently, some 84% to 85% of the estimated grouse in the Equality State dwell within the core areas.
“That may not be enough,” Budd told attendees in Pinedale. “That’s part of what we’re looking at today.”
Later, he made an accounting analogy out of sage grouse.
“If our assets are 90%, our liabilities are minor — they’re 10% and they’re scattered all over the place,” Budd said. “That’s a very strong balance sheet.”
Wyoming last revised its sage grouse core areas in 2015 and 2019. The policy requires state agencies to limit disturbance of grouse habitat while allowing for mineral and oil and gas development, livestock grazing and other human activities. It can also require developers to make up for unavoidable habitat loss.
Comparatively, the ongoing revision process has been truncated. The reason is the Bureau of Land Management, under court order, is revising sage grouse protections in its West-wide resource management plans via an environmental impact statement. Concurrently, the states are scrambling to update their protections so that they can be included in the federal government’s planning process.
“It’s not a friendly timeframe,” Randall Luthi, the governor’s chief energy advisor, said in Pinedale. “We’re doing the best we can.”
Wyoming’s deadline for comment on the map revisions, which was already extended once, lapsed on Friday.
“Previous changes have all been made with a very public process up front,” said Tom Christiansen, a retired sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
This time, Christiansen told WyoFile, biologists were asked, “In a perfect world for sage grouse, what would you add?” Their recommendations were then tweaked, rolled out to the public as draft changes — and they caught some landowners off guard, he said.
“I think that’s very unfortunate, because it created a lot of controversy,” Christiansen said. “Unfortunately, I think this process has pitted some people against sage grouse. I hear some of the landowners in Northeast Wyoming’s concerns, some of which I think are legitimate.”
At the Pinedale meeting, Budd and Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director Angi Bruce walked landowners and other attendees through a series of expansions to core area proposed in the Upper Green River Basin, seven in all. She touted the on-the-ground sage grouse census data underlying the additions there, and beyond.
“In Wyoming we have a lot of really good science, we probably had the best data available on sage grouse in the world,” Bruce said. “We need to use that — and show we’re using it — in a constructive manner in order to retain control of the bird.”
While the sage grouse team’s fast-tracked revision to the state’s sage grouse map has raised some hackles, other parties stand firmly in support. Daly Edmunds, director of policy and outreach for Audubon Rockies, pointed to the proposed additions in the state’s northeast corner, where there are the lowest densities of grouse and the smallest percentage of birds protected by core areas.
“I think it’s time for the core areas to be reviewed,” Edmunds said.
A stand of support
Edmunds was around when Wyoming was first starting to craft a plan to protect sage grouse in the early 2000s. At the time on staff at the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, she thought back to former Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s very first public meeting about the state’s grouse policy.
“I remember [Freudenthal] saying in front of everybody, ‘If you thought the spotted owl issue was bad, if you thought the wolf issue was bad, you haven’t seen anything,’” she recalled. “He really energized Wyoming to be very forward thinking and pulled a lot of people together.”
Wyoming’s sage grouse safeguards have helped keep an Endangered Species Act listing at bay, Edmunds said. The state’s plans were “incredibly influential” when the U.S. Department of the Interior decided not to list the bird in 2015, she said.
The federal government’s “12-month finding” from that time backs it up. “The conservation efforts by federal, state, and private partners have greatly changed the likely trajectory of the species from our 2010 projections when we determined that the species warranted listing,” the document says.
Arguably, Wyoming plays an outsized role in the fate of the sage grouse. There are more than 1,700 known breeding areas, or leks, in the state, which houses an estimated 38% of the world’s remaining grouse, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Potentially, the state’s current map revision could again move the needle. Whatever Wyoming and other western states send forward to the BLM will help shape an “alternative” that will be included in the agency’s draft environmental impact statement, said Brad Purdy, BLM-Wyoming’s deputy state director for communications.
Purdy described Wyoming as a collaborator to the BLM’s process and he echoed what he sees as a common goal: preventing a sage grouse listing.
“I think listing would be very, very rough on western economies,” he said, “and we’ve got to get these plans right and implemented.”
The BLM’s environmental document will outline changes to 70 resource management plans guiding sage grouse conservation on 67 million acres of 10 western states. Purdy said it’s tough to put a target on when the draft will come out, but guessed this coming spring.
Meantime, the state of Wyoming will continue to fine tune its sage grouse core areas.
The current revision is a “really worthy effort,” said Brian Rutledge, a recently retired Audubon employee who was a longtime member of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team.
“It was the best conservation effort I was ever involved in,” Rutledge said of the team. “The state of Wyoming and all the members of the SGIT have worked so hard toward the largest terrestrial landscape conservation effort in the history of planet Earth. That’s a big deal.”
Sommers told WyoFile he remains skeptical.
After hearing from constituents who weren’t pleased with core area expansions that overlapped their private land, he requested the Pinedale meeting. Personally, he was happy with the effectiveness of the state’s sage grouse policy the way it was.
“By and large, we created a plan that was working,” Sommers said. “What was wrong with the plan that we had? Is the only reason we were making this jump to expand the maps because the feds have a worse map?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said, “but it appears to me that’s the case.”
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