Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse puffs out its chest early April 17 on a lek in southern Natrona County. Some say changing federal policy could affect populations of the bird in the West as well as key industries that operate in Wyoming.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

The Department of the Interior may want to switch to a numbers game to protect the greater sage-grouse, but Gov. Matt Mead does not.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a professed outdoorsman and Teddy Roosevelt enthusiast, Mead and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper reiterated their belief that a population-based conservation strategy would “not be the right decision.” Right now, the bird is managed by policy that protects its home range.

The governors also said large changes to the plans are not likely necessary.

In a bid to roll back regulations that limit development of public lands, President Donald Trump instructed his agencies to do a wholesale review of their rules and regulations with a particular eye on those that inhibit oil, gas and coal industries. In Wyoming, that approach pleased a wide swath of citizens who have pushed back against federal limitations, where some two-thirds of government revenue comes energy sources, and the majority of oil and gas development takes place on federal lands or with federal minerals.

However, sage grouse protection falls somewhere in the middle of the Cowboy State’s overlapping core values, and the state led the charge to conserve the grouse. One of the key points that the multitude of stakeholders acknowledge is that habitat matters more than numbers.

The sage grouse, a fat little bird with patterned feathers and an odd mating ritual, too center stage in one of the country’s most collaborative approaches to conservation with the help of Wyoming conservationists, oil and gas leaders and government partners. Rumors that those plans could be changed elicit various responses from different parties. There is on thing that those in Wyoming hold in common: They don’t want to lose their seat at the table.

“Wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time,” wrote Mead and Hickenlooper. “We hope that you will engage the Task Force before committing to making any changes.”

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Sara Greenberger is worried. The vice president of conservation policy for the National Audubon Society is like Mead in questioning the approach of an agency review on sage grouse management. Looking at numbers is a slippery slope that opens the possibility of captive breeding reliance, while ignoring the scientific view that habitat is key to the grouse’s survival, she said.

Greenberger worked for the Department of the Interior under former Secretary Sally Jewel in the years leading up to a decision not to list the sage grouse as an endangered species, a historic win for collaborative conservation.

“To do that it was important to find the most integral places to protect — that was put together with compromises, hard work and tons of conversations at state, local and national levels over years,” she said. “If it is treated careless and without bringing all of those people back to the table, you risk ruining not just the plans or what they do for birds and 350 other species, but for the incentive to work together and compromise for shared outcomes.”

But others acknowledge that the plans are not perfect, and a review is not necessarily the end of the world for sage grouse.

Paul Ulrich, a member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team and director of government affairs for Jonah Energy, said he’d like to see some of Wyoming’s plans mirrored in the federal version.

In many ways, the Bureau of Land Management used identical measures as the state to protect the grouse and encourage mitigation when habitat was disturbed. But in Ulrich’s opinion, there are ways the federal plans could be fairer for developers. Areas that have a federal designation as prime for oil and gas should be able to be developed, he said.

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Some in the conservation community have pointed out that industry suffers when there are major policy swings.

As to whether a potential review of sage grouse management could go too far in favor of industry only to swing back in four to eight years, Ulrich said it is something to be wary of. However, if sage grouse management continues as it has, with collaboration and compromise, those federal swings won’t be so severe.

“We always worry about pendulum swings,” he said. “However, if the previous administration or the next administration truly commits to work with the state and the communities and the conservation groups to develop plans like we developed in Wyoming, that negates the pendulum swing.”

Bob Budd, the SGIT chairman, said he couldn’t speculate on what the current administration may or may not do in regard to the grouse, but said he didn’t balk at the idea of a well-planned review.

“If you are just talking in the cold, hard light of day, are there things in those plans that could improve on? Absolutely,” he said. “If our plans can’t stand some scrutiny, they aren’t any good.”

But they are good, even if they were put together under pressure, over a limited time period, he added.

All parties, however, want to be part of any review that takes place.

“That bird is the property of the state of Wyoming, so we have a vested interest in the outcome of whatever gets done,” Budd said.

The governors sent the same message.

“The Task Force as a group and the sage grouse states individually were directly involved in the development of those plan amendments,” they wrote. “The states understand the provisions that need improvement, and can help the Department develop ways to target those problematic provisions.”

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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