Sage Grouse Farm

Karl Bear, former owner of the Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds in Powell, walks through one of his enclosures for chukar partridges in mid-December. Casper oilman Diemer True now owns the farm and is working with Bear on potentially raising sage grouse.

Josh Galemore, Casper Star-Tribune

An oilman’s desire to breed the imperiled sage grouse at his northern Wyoming bird farm found preferential treatment with the Interior Department, an environmental group argued recently citing documents gathered from a recent public records request.

Western Values Project obtained a series of emails between federal officials and prospective sage grouse-farmer Diemer True regarding his captive breeding trial. It is a controversial approach to conserving the bird and would be the first of its kind in the West.

True’s correspondence with the Interior in July coincided with a review of the federal sage grouse management program. The following month, the Interior published a report mentioning support for captive breeding.

Western Values argues that the Interior’s stance shows preferential treatment for industry, even when it’s just one individual.

True is a member of an oil and gas dynasty in Wyoming. The family runs various companies involved in pipelines, exploration and production.

But the oilman said in an interview Friday that there was nothing inappropriate about his request for support from the Interior.

“I think just the opposite is true,” True said. “The barrier was there in the previous administration, where people with new ideas simply didn’t have access to any of the decision-makers.”

Multiple emails to the Interior Department on whether environmental groups also requested, or were offered, behind the scenes access to the Interior during the review were not returned by press time.

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The recent report from the Interior Department was not the only time federal officials indicated support for captive breeding last year.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke mentioned captive breeding as a novel approach to preserving the species when he ordered the review in June. The comments surprised and angered some in the environmental community.

Gov. Matt Mead, an influential political figure on the sage grouse issue, also discouraged captive breeding in letters and statements to Zinke following the announcement.

True is a key figure in the captive breeding debate. His farm, Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds, is the only farm to request permission to try captive breeding in Wyoming.

The state program was given the green light by Wyoming legislators last year after significant lobbying from True. Scientists in the West argue that captive breeding is an option when all other options have failed. The grouse still has a chance if the habitat is protected, they say.

True is adamant that the bird farm does not threaten this wider approach to saving the bird.

“This may not work,” True said. “We have to be honest about that. But if it does work, it’s one more arrow in the quiver.”

He brought this same argument to Interior officials in the emails obtained by Western Values.

A spokeswoman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America made introductions between True and communications officials from the Interior in June.

“He would like to see a reference to the merits of the program in the final report,” the spokeswoman wrote of True.

He would be available to visit Washington if that was preferable, she added.

In a later email exchange from True, the oilman reiterated the request for favorable mention of breeding the bird. He also included a brief on his breeding program that asked if the Interior would front half of the project’s $2 million estimated cost, both as an investment in sage grouse management and to spur private investors.

The Interior held a call with True, an official from IPAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that same month. The documents from Western Values did not include a transcript of the call.

True said Friday that he didn’t remember making the funding request, but said the bird farm has moved away from seeking public investment in the program.

For True, the sage grouse farm is an experiment that could buoy numbers for the bird and it requires endorsement and financial investment. He is not shy about asking for backers, federal or private.

“One of the things that I have learned is that if we don’t get broad-based support … this is probably not going to be successful getting across the finish line.”

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The oil and gas group, IPAA and Denver-based Western Energy Alliance also spoke on behalf of three oil and gas companies whose operations in Wyoming could be held up by the federal plans, according to the emails obtained by Western Values.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Alliance has defended her association’s contact with the federal agency on more than one occasion since the review.

“Western Energy Alliance represents companies producing energy on federal lands. As such, of course we have meetings and other interactions with the agency that governs that development,” she said in an email Friday.

“We interacted regularly with the Obama Interior Department and will continue to do so with the Trump Interior Department, as can [Western Values Project] or any other group.”

Jayson O’Neill, of Western Values Project, said it’s true that all groups can file public comments or reach out to officials directly. But not all groups are getting their voices heard anymore, he said.

“It’s always a balance,” O’Neill said. “But, when someone can put their thumb on the scale because they are influential… that’s when it becomes troubling.”

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Sage grouse conservation is a controversial issue in Wyoming, home to the majority of the bird’s population. Much of the sage grouse’s habitat overlaps with oil and gas activity, or oil and gas potential, in the state. Two and a half years ago, federal and state plans to protect the bird kept sage grouse from ending up on the endangered species list.

Most in Wyoming want to keep the bird off that list and are fiercely loyal to state management plans designed in Wyoming by a coalition of environmentalists, oil and gas companies, ranchers and government officials.

There is less agreement over federal plans.

Though similar to Wyoming’s approach, a number of differences between Wyoming’s strategy and the Bureau of Land Management’s plans have been criticized by industry and by the ranching community.

The debate became heated over the summer both during and after Zinke’s review.

Those in the environmental community view Zinke’s approach to sage grouse with suspicion given the secretary’s many comments about unleashing industry on public lands.

“What this administration continues to repeat is that ‘We are going to build trust. We are going to work with local folks on the ground.’” said O’Neill, of Western Values. “Then, they do the exact opposite of what they’ve preached.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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