Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse struts in April on a lek in southern Natrona County.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

The Boy Scouts are credited with an often repeated rule about camping: always leave the site in better shape than you found it.

That same ethos applies to the much trickier and more expensive Western dilemma of maintaining the sage brush speckled habitat that an imperiled bird needs to survive.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it was accepting public comment on revising or removing the Boy Scout approach, or “net conservation gain,” from its mitigation policies.

It’s an Obama-era concept that lies beneath more than 90 land management plans in the West that govern sage grouse conservation.

At the least, operations like mining or ranching in areas that state and federal partners have decided are key to the bird’s survival are supposed to be balanced by repairs somewhere else.

But the federal rulebook, as it stands today, goes further. Damage should be offset with improvement.

Changing that was expected, and it is the most recent decision in a flurry of Interior Department moves that could change the way Wyoming protects its sage grouse. The federal actions have been endorsed by groups like the Western Energy Alliance and received fierce opposition from organizations such as the Audubon Society. Wyoming’s conservative governor has called for caution.

Some in the oil and gas industries would be supportive of removing the “net gain” provision in federal language, which they say has been unclear and misapplied since its addition. Others see the Boy Scout rule as a move forward in conservation, a field where losing ground, particularly for sage grouse, is the norm.

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Wyoming is on the front line of sage grouse’s survival. The Cowboy State is home to nearly 40 percent of the bird’s population, and its budget is dependent on continual revenue from energy industries.

Net gain has been a thorny topic in the sage grouse debates from the get-go, but it’s a dry story compared to some of the more controversial changes to sage grouse protections on the table today.

The Interior Department has opened up sage grouse management plans for a number of revisions that would have real and immediate consequences on the ground, including allowing some states to focus on numbers instead of habitat when conserving the grouse or adjusting boundaries around protected habitats. Some figures, like Gov. Matt Mead, have cautioned against extensive changes to the management plans, arguing that they offer long term certainty for the bird and industry.

The conservation language, by contrast, is part of a framework that supports the management plans. The immediate consequences of removing it are unclear, experts say.

However, in a year of uncertainty for federal sage grouse plans, not all are concerned by the notion of a review.

Net gain should be looked at, said Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team.

“There were no limits, if you will, on what it meant,” Budd said.

By contrast, Wyoming has a clear framework for mitigation that an operator knows from the start, he said. The state’s goal is to make habitat whole after disruptions, Budd said.

The federal provision is ripe for abuse, he said.

“If it’s open ended, that leads to the horror stories that you hear about, where it turns into extracting money for no visible purpose,” Budd said.

Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, related a Wyoming operator’s experience of a two-year delay on a project largely due to the question of how to meet the net gain goal for disturbed sage grouse habitat.

Not even the federal agencies that enforce this rule can readily define what it means, Wagner said.

“The way we see it is that it hasn’t been defined in a manner that anyone can explain and quantify,” she said. “It’s a concept that’s already been inconsistently applied across BLM field offices.”

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Conservationists see the Boy Scout provision much differently, and removing it pulls the rug out from underneath the sage grouse strategy, they say.

The federal plans that are under review, which are largely based on Wyoming’s own strategies, already leave some 80 percent of the bird’s habitat unprotected, explained Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for the National Audubon Society.

That was the trade off with development that conservationists like Rutledge, a member of the state’s sage grouse management team, made peace with after nearly a decade of working with industry, agriculture, state and federal officials.

“Net conservation gain isn’t something anybody is getting,” he said.

The plans can’t work if even the protected areas are disturbed, he said.

Mary Flanderka, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, echoed a similar view.

Setting a high bar for mitigation in the protected areas makes up for widespread losses to conservation goals over decades, she said.

“There is always more people, more land loss, more land converted to agriculture,” she said. “Nobody is making new habitat. You might be able to restore it, but you’re not gaining anything. You’re just replacing what you took.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment until Jan. 5.

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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