When managing the imperiled sage grouse, a western bird that impacts everything from ranching to oil and gas development, federal agencies are directed by a rule: Improve the bird’s habitat and population, or at the very least, don’t harm it.

It was a part of the strategy to keep the bird from being listed as endangered, which would have created a tremendous scuffle across public lands in fossil fuel-dependent states like Wyoming and likely damaged conservation efforts as a result, experts say.

But sage grouse conservation could lose that yardstick in the coming weeks on the order of the Interior Department, a move some say is another step to weaken the bird’s protection from industry development. Others disagree, pointing out that the language is too vague to be effective.

The issue was raised in a recent meeting of Wyoming’s sage grouse experts, which included industry representatives, biologists and ranchers.

Days later, an email from Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department informed members of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team that the feds would consider removing “net conservation gain” from the Endangered Species Act policies of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The proposed changes would be filed Oct. 30, kicking off a 60-day public comment period. Game and Fish was informed of this possibility by the federal agency. A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service deferred comment to Interior. The department’s spokeswoman declined to comment.

Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the Interior Department’s decision not to list the sage grouse as an endangered species, crediting the development of both state and federal protections for staving off a listing.

Now that those plans have had some time to work, not everyone is averse to changes. But which changes, and for what purpose, are highly controversial.

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Should the Service, or the federal department that oversees the Service, remove net conservation gain from the playbook, it may not have immediate consequences on the ground.

The language is embedded in federal policies that essentially influence other federal policies, said Mike McGrady, sage grouse policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead.

More than 90 local management plans govern sage grouse conservation on public land in the West, and net gain really provides only a framework for developing those management strategies.

But that is not to say net gain is irrelevant. For oil and gas firms that fear an arbitrary measuring stick, the policy has long been a point of contention. For those who feel conservation has already been compromised for oil and gas development, the change erodes the protections that they fought to include in federal plans.

Some say nixing net gain could influence both sage grouse populations in the West and key industries that operate in Wyoming, like oil and gas, going forward.

Still, no one is surprised that it may face change. It was controversial to begin with.

“Net conservation gain has been a hot topic in that there are a lot of folks that feel like it was too much — that the agency was asking for more than they were entitled to,” McGrady said.

Different agencies apply it in different ways, and that can also create some inconsistencies on the ground, he said.

“There has not been a time when we’ve had a clearly fleshed-out understanding of what it means. We might not get there because it may be undone,” he said.

The governor’s office will weigh in on any suggested changes depending on how they align with the state’s polices, he said, but he did not elaborate on what the governor’s position would be.

Mead has been critical of some of Interior’s actions on sage grouse, discouraging attempts to make wholesale changes to the plans, which were put together by state, federal and local partnerships, spearheaded by Wyoming.

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Though some are fiercely protective of sage grouse management as it is today, others are less concerned about adjustments to the way the bird is protected.

Bob Budd, chairman of the state’s sage grouse team, said that net gain needs definition to be useful.

He could not speculate on what the upcoming changes will be but said he would not be surprised if net conservation gain was up for review.

Budd has maintained that the federal sage grouse plans should be continually open to adjustments and each state should be given the flexibility to manage the bird as they see fit.

“What we are saying is, let’s be cautious about how we do this,” Budd said in the SGIT meeting earlier this month where federal changes were discussed. “We don’t want to pull back all the protections in there for industry and for the bird. But at the same time, there are things that are clearly not working or being misinterpreted, and how do we fix that?”

Like much of the official counsel given by Wyoming biologists, the state’s governor and its various experts from industry to conservation, Budd’s comments at the meeting advised federal agencies to proceed with prudence in regard to changes.

“What we’ve cautioned is go ahead and publish the notice of intent; nobody is objecting to that,” he said. “But make sure that it’s broad enough to allow for a state that doesn’t think they need to amend their plan to do that, to allow the states that need to make surgical, targeted amendments to do that and should there be those that believe their entire plan needs to be done, have at it.”

Diemer True, an oil and gas man from Casper and a member of the state’s sage grouse team, said he wasn’t concerned by federal changes. Protections for the bird are still in place and drilling changes have already greatly reduced disturbances in the bird’s habitat, he said.

“I think it is perfectly compatible with the oil and gas industry to move on public lands without damaging the sage grouse and its habitat,” he said. “The industry is so changed. We drill so many wells from a single pad, and we can do it so much quicker. We can be in there and out of there. It’s not from my perspective a real threat to the sage grouse.”

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For one group in Wyoming, however, an attempt to erase the net gain rule is highly suspicious.

“[Interior] is saying that we can prioritize gas and oil everywhere, ignoring that we identified the best places to keep the grouse going,” said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for the National Audubon Society. “It’s willful or unintentional ignorance. I don’t know which, but it’s ignorance.”

In early August, the Interior Department released the results of a criticized 60-day review of the sage grouse plans, with a number of suggested updates, including allowing controversial practices like captive breeding and setting population targets as markers of success in some states. Those moves would diminish the habitat-based approach developed in Wyoming and allow for more drilling in protected areas, conservationists argue.

The review was initiated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has tied review of conservation polices to support for the oil, gas and coal industries. Zinke’s orders frequently reference President Donald Trump’s edict earlier this year to unleash U.S. energy industries that have been hampered by federal rules.

But that rhetoric does not ring true to Rutledge, who is also a member of SGIT and has been involved in sage grouse study and conservation in Wyoming for years.

“To adopt the core area policy was a huge compromise on part of conservation,” he said, referring to the way the plans work – protect certain areas for the grouse and leave others for development. “We gave up 67 percent of the sage grouse habitat in the West and only partially protected the remaining 33 percent. We allowed oil and gas development on part of that 33 percent and on all of that 67 percent.”

Taking away goal posts like net gain reflects a lack of understanding of what the plans do, how they work and why they were devised in the first place, he said.

“The way we are right now is we are at a net loss of severe proportions,” Rutledge said. “We are still suffering from the abuse of the prior century. Fixing that [in key habitats] does not seem like too much to ask to me.”

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Wyoming’s position on sage grouse is complicated. Though it has led the way on conservation and is home to the largest percentage of birds, it needs its oil and gas industry to be robust.

Wyoming has suffered financially in recent years with low prices for oil and gas. Low prices mean less drilling, which means fewer jobs and declining revenue for Wyoming. An ESA listing would have curtailed drilling as effectively as a sustained drop in commodity prices, experts say. That risk galvanized Wyoming, turning the energy-rich state into a clear leader in sage grouse conservation across the West and making sage grouse conservation a priority for the last decade.

However, with a new president in the White House, the direction of federal land management is changing, and with it some policies that impact the grouse in Wyoming are due to change as well.

Net conservation gain may be the first topic in sage grouse conservation to face scrutiny, but it is unlikely to be the last.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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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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