Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse flies low over the ground in April at a lek in southern Natrona County. Critics are concerned by the Interior Department’s possible changes to sage grouse protections, but industry representatives and more moderate environmental groups expect that changes will be minor.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

The Interior Department’s decision to make potentially broad changes to federal protections for sage grouse shook Wyoming on Thursday, the energy rich state that built the foundation of sage grouse management in the west.

Interior is seeking public input on some of the staples of federal plans that precluded sage grouse from an Endangered Species Listing two years ago, including caps on the amount of land use activities that can take place near important breeding and nesting grounds and the boundaries that surround crucial habitat. The announcement kicks off a 45-day comment period.

It’s a blow to environmental advocates, who say the bird has already lost significant portions of its habitat, about 75 percent, to allow for varying degrees of development. But it’s an opportunity for others, ready for a chance to amend provisions that limit either grazing or energy development.

Wyoming is considered key to the bird’s survival, and has emerged as a leader in sage grouse conservation over the last decade. It is largely responsible for the strategy mimicked by the feds, which entails identifying crucial habitats and surrounding them with the best protections. After years of wrangling, Wyoming ranchers, oil and gas companies and environmental advocates paired with state and federal agencies on the state’s management team to build the Wyoming plans.

The state has been a leader, intent on protecting its energy economy and preserving sage brush habitat. As such, it has the most to lose if the plans fail.

Advising caution

Today’s suggested changes to federal management plans were expected, but diverse leaders in Wyoming, including Gov. Matt Mead, have spent the last few months cautioning against aggressive updates.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the sage grouse strategies had stoked “anger,” and needed to include more western voices. He has also made it clear he wants to open more lands to oil and gas development and initiated a 60-day review of the plans earlier this year.

Mead repeated his earlier admonishment to the feds in a statement Thursday, noting that it was state and federal plans that kept the bird from being listed as an Endangered Species.

“As BLM looks to make changes to its federal plans, I would encourage the agency to find ways to better align with Wyoming’s state plan,” he said. “There are positive changes that can be made to the federal plans, but we should be careful and thoughtful about how we do that.”

Many environmental groups in Wyoming have criticized Zinke’s comments as uninformed and voiced outrage Thursday. Middle of the road environmental groups, say changes should be minor, not wholesale.

For Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy advisor for the Audubon Society, the Interior’s narrative of state cooperation’s and fairness to energy development is a false flag. Concessions to energy have already been made, he said.

“The compromise wasn’t because we wanted less land for the bird,” Rutledge said. “We were trying to make room for humans, and human expression at the same time. It was frankly a compromise loaded to the human side.”

There are groups in Wyoming that say the federal sage grouse plans did not do enough to protect the grouse from further declines. For them, the Interior’s direction “plays chicken with extinction.”

“The Department of Interior is now abandoning all pretense of protecting sage-grouse in a stampede to ramp up commercial exploitation of public lands,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds, the group that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 forcing a decision on listing the grouse before its numbers declined further.

Room for change

One of the hallmarks of Wyoming’s work on the grouse is that it brought diverse interests to the table. After Thursday’s announcement, some remained positive that federal updates were necessary.

Jim Magagna, of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said he understood the fears from environmental groups, but said that no one in the grazing world wants to go too far in unraveling the plans. Those who want wholesale changes that would damage Wyoming’s efforts over the years are probably in the minority, he said.

There are, however, a few issues that should be clarified or adjusted for ranchers in the federal plans which went farther than Wyoming’s, he said.

At the end of the day, Wyoming’s conservation efforts will remain in place regardless of the federal changes, he said.

Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, said the plans were built on exaggerations of industry’s impact on the bird and ignored the way new technology has reduced the footprint of oil and gas drilling on the landscape.

“The plans discouraged on-the-ground, local conservation efforts and ignored state plans, except for Wyoming’s, in favor of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” said President Kathleen Sgamma, in a statement Thursday.

Sgamma’s organization, based in Colorado, was not one of the industry partners that developed Wyoming’s approach to management, but has been vocal in its support of changes to the federal plans in recent months.

The nod to Wyoming’s sole influence is not insignificant. While Wyoming shot forward to protect its energy economy from the fallout of an ESA listing, other states were less influential on the federal plans.

Rep. Ron Bishop, R-Utah, has repeatedly advocated for changes. Speaking to another BLM decision Thursday — withdrawing a proposal that would have restricted hard rock mining on 10 million acres of the sage brush ecosystem for up to 20 years — Bishop applauded Zinke’s efforts.

“States have proven to be more than capable of managing wildlife and conservation within their borders and will continue to be the best advocate for the species,” he said of sage grouse protections. “Secretary Zinke is developing a better policy through input from states and people on the ground with local knowledge and expertise.”

The cry for state leadership strikes some in Wyoming as odd, given that the state was so involved in sage grouse management up to this point.

Mary Throne, a Democrat running for governor in the state, pointed out that the plans were Wyoming-grown.

“I don’t know why D.C. has to come in and tell us to go back to the drawing board,” she said Thursday. “Sometimes the state-driven decisions that are tailored to your specific circumstances are better.”

Differing views

Many who are closely involved with sage grouse management in Wyoming have said the plans to protect the bird should be continually reviewed to ensure that the strategies are working. Industry groups, included those involved in developing Wyoming’s plans, have said the feds took things too far.

For Rutledge, an influential voice in Wyoming’s sage grouse debate, the hope now is that there are moderate industry voices that stand up for the plans. At the end of the day, the Western governors particularly from Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada, are needed to keep the plans from falling apart in the Interior Department’s hands, he said.

“We already gave up nearly 70 percent of the habitat,” Rutledge said. “What else can we give up and (still) hang on to any of these species.”

Arno Rosenfeld contributed to this report.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Star-Tribune reporter Heather Richards covers Wyoming's energy industry and related issues.

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