Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse flies low over the ground in April at a lek in southern Natrona County. Wyoming has the largest percentage of sage grouse habitat in the West and the most overlap with potential oil and gas development.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has yet to announce the experts who will lead a two-month examination of Obama-era plans to protect the imperiled sage grouse, a bird that lives across the West and is facing significant population declines.

Whoever those experts may be, the Western governors request their attendance at an upcoming meeting in Montana.

Gov. Matt Mead along with the leaders of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Nevada want to be directly involved in the recently announced 60-day review of federal strategies to protect the sage grouse.

In a letter to Zinke on Tuesday, the governors asked that the feds initiate their promised partnership with the states at a meeting next week in Whitefish, Montana.

Developing management plans to balance crucial economic drivers like oil and gas development with eroding habitat that the bird needs to survive was a herculean task from western states, environmental advocates, land owners and oil and gas companies. The strange bedfellows were united to stave off an endangered species listing. The decision not to list the bird was announced in late 2015.

However, the plans are due for re-examination, if not change, Zinke said in an interview with reporters June 7, citing Western “anger” over federal overreach. Zinke also said that a number of Western governors had sought such a move.

The leaders of the six Western states did not address that claim in their letter. But they did remind the secretary of their expertise in all matters sage grouse and of his pledge to improve the plans by including more state input.

“We appreciate your acknowledgement of the western states’ considerable role in conserving greater sage-grouse and would further emphasize the importance of including state officials as substantive participants in any federal review of current land use plans,” the letter states.

Environmental groups balked at a number of Zinke’s comments when the review was announced. Of particular concern was Zinke’s mention of switching from habitat focus to population targets, which biologists say will harm the bird in the long run. Others say the impending ESA decision had rushed leaders as they formulated a plan. A review of the federal strategies is an opportunity for improvement, they say, not a threat.

Zinke said the review was an attempt to bring sage grouse management in concert with other federal priorities like President Donald Trump’s Energy Independence executive order. Support for energy development was a major push in Trump’s campaign.

A request to the Interior Department for the names of the sage grouse experts leading the review was not answered by press time.

The Western Governors’ Association has been instrumental in efforts to address the declining population of the bird due to eroding habitat in the West.

The group’s Sage Grouse Task Force — which meets next week in Montana — was convened in 2011 to create a leadership arm across the bird’s wide habitat area.

Wyoming has been a leader in sage grouse conservation, and the federal plans have an outsized impact in the state. Not only does the largest share of the bird’s habitat lie in Wyoming, but nearly half of Wyoming’s surface and mineral rights fall under federal management.

Wyoming receives about three-fourths of its income from the oil, gas and coal industries, which also use federal lands.

According to a recent study by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Wyoming has the biggest challenge balancing development and sage grouse habitat. About 10 percent of the bird’s habitat in the state is currently leased to oil and gas development, and about 32 percent of the bird’s key habitat holds high potential for future oil and gas drilling, according to the study.

Tuesday’s letter is the third to Zinke on the issue of sage grouse that bears Mead’s signature. In earlier correspondence, Mead advised caution in regard to population targets and insisted the plans’ shortcomings are likely minor.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

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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