Captive rearing of sage grouse in Wyoming moved forward Friday in Casper, when members of the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team weighed in on proposed regulations and protocol for the practice.
The prevailing mood was one of consternation, as those most familiar with sage grouse conservation in Wyoming debated how to craft parameters around a practice that many of them oppose.
The Wyoming Legislature passed a bill earlier this year instructing the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to create rules for licensing bird farms to collect up to 250 eggs from a limited number of wild nests to be raised in captivity, potentially bred, and released into the wild.
The members of SGIT were given a working draft of the Game and Fish’s rules, which were not made public.
“This is your one bite at the apple,” said Bob Budd, chairman of SGIT, to the various industry leaders, hunters and conservationists gathered for the meeting. SGIT will also provide public comment to Game and Fish on the first public draft of the rules, but was not given a leadership role in the crafting of regulations.
Farming sage grouse has been a controversial topic in the state, with many wildlife scientists saying the project will fail, to the detriment of the existing population. The decline in the sage grouse population is the result of habitat erosion from human development, rather than a game of numbers, opponents say.
But the idea of farming the odd little bird has been raised multiple times over the years. Its proponents, like Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds farm outside of Powell, which has successfully raised captive pheasants and quail, are eager to at least give sage grouse farming a try.
Casper oilman and former Wyoming Senate President Diemer True, a new member to SGIT, would like to farm the birds. He called captive breeding one “arrow in the quiver” of Wyoming’s conservation efforts.
Yet some of the conversations Friday wound back to the controversy of the farming’s purpose and its efficacy.
True sparked pushback from some entities in the room by saying private funding for captive breeding may include a foundation made up of donors, with some information kept proprietary.
“I think there needs to be clarity that the protocol is not proprietary,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the Rocky Mountain Region Audubon Society. “The protocol developed for … the species in captivity should be public. I just want to be clear on that point.”
Others worried about the language that defines sage brush habitat in captivity and proper nutrition. Sage grouse are biologically adapted to the sage brush they eat. They will die without it, one person noted.
Neither can the birds be fed grain, Rutledge added. Another member noted that if the birds were converted to certain feed in captivity, the notoriously finicky birds would likely die as soon as they were set free.
Others were frank about their disdain with the entire notion of farming the wild species that carries out its elaborate mating dance on the Western landscape.
Bruce Lawson, a member of the Shirley Basin sage grouse working group, characterized farming as a futile attempt, contrary to the work Wyoming has done over the years to save the grouse. It’s also a risky precedent that privatizes wildlife management, and threatens to introduce disease into the wild population, he said.
“I’m disappointed in the Legislature for passing this. I think it’s an example of their arrogance and ignorance when dealing with wildlife issues,” he said to the people gathered in the Game and Fish office in Casper. “I think it’s an insult to all of you, a slap in the face to all of the professionals in the wildlife agencies.”
Sage grouse were precluded from an endangered species listing in 2015, with broad credit given to varied Wyoming groups, from the state’s federal land management experts to conservationists and ranchers. A listing decision would likely have had a grave impact on industry in the state, as oil, gas, coal and other mineral developers would face strict prohibitions in sage grouse areas. Even without federal rules, sage grouse conservation places a number of burdens on industry when it tries to operate in or near sage grouse habitat.
The vast majority of sage grouse in Wyoming also live on federal land, where current policies largely mirror Wyoming’s in regard to protecting sage grouse breeding areas. Politics in Washington, however, have changed since the election of President Donald Trump, and the direction of federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management is unclear in regard to sage grouse.
Changes to conservation management could set Wyoming back a decade, said Rutledge.
The Audubon director commended Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead, for working with Washington to ensure the state’s sage grouse efforts are understood by those in power, but noted the danger of changing political wills.
“The pendulum does come back … all the energy now may well receive the pendulum in its rear end when it comes the other way,” Rutledge said.
Leading Thursday’s meeting, Budd repeatedly brought the participants, who over a period of years have laid the groundwork for grouse conservation across the West, back to the simplicity of their purpose.
“The Legislature has said this will be done and we are going to honor that commitment,” he said. “(Game and Fish) are told what they have to do. You are being given an opportunity to hopefully provide some council and wisdom.”