There was a time when Wyoming’s various industries gathered in meeting halls and hotels across Wyoming to talk about the imperiled sage grouse with environmental groups and state and federal biologists and land managers. Industry was often defensive and conversations were heated, as different groups argued over what areas of Wyoming’s sage grouse habitat would be protected from developments like oil and gas drilling, mining or grazing.
But a changing stance of the federal government in regard to managing the bird that edged close to the precipice of an endangered species listing has industry becalmed these days and conservationists reaching a breaking point.
Reactions to the latest sage grouse adjustment have been no different. The Interior Department published a notice of intent Friday to potentially change the more than 90 management plans concerning the bird across its 11-state habitat.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management instructed its field office Thursday that they did not have to prioritize leasing for oil and gas outside of the birds habitat.
The new instructions flip earlier guidelines that said leasing for development should be considered outside of key bird areas first. The news follows a call for public comment in October on the management plans and a sage grouse program review by the Interior Department in late summer that caused controversy among conservationists in the West.
The instructions also update guidelines for grazing, habitat goals and triggers that warn of a damaged habitat. They will determine on the ground decisions by local Bureau of Land Management offices for how to apply federal policy, until those policies face potential revisions in the coming year.
Some in Wyoming say the change brings federal rules in line with the state, which allow leasing, while discouraging development in core areas.
Others say the instructions contradict the Bureau of Land Management’s policies and see a steady erosion in regard to sage grouse protections. Further down this road is another endangered species listing that will risk Wyoming’s economy, particularly its oil and gas sector, they say.
After 14 years working in Wyoming to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, Brian Rutledge, policy adviser for the Audubon Society, said he is wondering how far things will go before he changes his stance.
“If they push [dramatic changes], we’ll work for it to be listed,” he said. “And I will do everything I can to shut them down.”
Rutledge is a member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team.
The sage grouse strategy is simple at heart, he said. They took the places where the birds were doing best and protected those areas.
Of the whole sage grouse range, that only added up to a little more than 20 percent of heavily protected habitat, Rutledge said.
Those conserved areas will only face more disturbance and damage if leasing inside and outside core is treated the same, he said. While the rules that govern actual development of those leases are only effective if they are enforced.
In his view, the Bureau of Land Management has already reduced its protections in practice since the Trump administration began its campaign to reduce regulations that hamper energy development.
The Audubon Society has expressed this sentiment throughout lease auctions in Wyoming this year, when BLM allowed leasing in areas that conservationists said should not be open to oil and gas development according to the federal plans.
Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at The Wilderness Society, said the instructions are unsurprising, but disappointing.
They send a mixed message to federal agents, she said, because they are giving guidance in direct opposition to federal management plans regarding the grouse.
“The plans are really clear,” she said. “The plans say we are prioritizing to avoid damage and to drive leasing and drilling outside of habitat.”
In a statement Friday, Brian Steed, BLM’s Deputy Director for Programs and Policy, said the changes released last week were a response to state requests.
“They were developed from the ground up with the goal of improving sagebrush habitat while permitting measured economic and recreational activity,” he said.
Bob Budd, the sage grouse chairman, has consistently said conservationists’ fears are overblown.
Leasing in core areas is not the problem, he said. Wyoming has done it for years. As long as development and drilling activities are regulated within habitat, the bird’s protections still stand, he said.
The restrictions on drilling in core areas are what incentivizes development outside of crucial habitat, said Paul Ulrich, of Jonah Energy, an industry representative on the state’s sage grouse team.
It’s an about face from the federal government’s earlier guidance, but it is actually more in line with the Wyoming strategy, he said.
The change in the instructions is exactly what Wyoming has asked: make the federal plans consistent with state’s, Ulrich said.
If the Interior Department ever fundamentally veered from Wyoming’s plan, he said he would balk at that idea too, but that’s not happening here.
Ulrich doesn’t believe the changes happening today will damage the partnerships between industry and conservationists in Wyoming.
“It’s crucial that we keep that coalition,” he said. “It would be devastating (to lose).”
Budd, the sage grouse chairman, has consistently said the Interior Department’s approach to the grouse will not be the shake out conservationists fear.
“It’s frustrating, and I know there are people who are looking at it with a very jaded view, just as there were people who looked at the previous administration with a jaded view,” Budd said.
But he argued that Wyoming’s way of approaching disagreements hasn’t changed, and the state’s objective hasn’t changed: balance the state’s economy with the bird’s preservation.
“We do that by protecting in core (habitat),” he said. “These (BLM instructions) don’t change that.”