Sage Grouse

Male sage grouse strut in hopes of attracting a mate early April 17 on a lek in southern Natrona County. Interior Department is anticipated to announce major changes to sage grouse management soon.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Gov. Matt Mead expressed concerns Friday about possible federal changes to sage grouse management, reiterating his desire for western states to be consulted during revisions.

His statement came after the New York Times leaked information Thursday about the Trump Administration’s plans to make significant changes to sage grouse management in the coming days. The news scattered like buckshot across the West where the imperiled bird lives.

The Interior Department is expected to publish a notice of intent in the federal register opening the plans, 98 in total, for changes.

But the future of the bird with the bright yellow chest that struts gravely across breeding grounds to find a mate has cast a troubling shadow in Wyoming.

The state is home to nearly 40 percent of the birds’ population, and it has blazed a trail of conservation in recent years in an effort to keep the bird off of the endangered species list. Hardline environmentalist didn’t believe it was enough, while others argued the protections were too restrictive of energy development.

A listing would devastate energy dependent economies in the West, as it would mean severe limits on oil and gas development, wind farms, ranching and infrastructure projects.

Many in the conservation community responded with dismay to the Department of Interior’s recent 60-day review of the plans, as well as to comments made by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promoting energy development and controversial environmental strategies.

Mead said states should drive changes as they have in the past, not Washington, he added.

“I just can’t overemphasize how important it is to have that state input,” Mead said. “If it was a state by state listing decision, that’d be one thing. But the way we are with the law right now, if one state gets listed, we all are going to get listed. We sink or swim together.”

Mead last spoke to the Interior secretary in June. The governor wrote a letter to Zinke mid-week requesting a meeting with Western Governors to ensure states continue to have input.

Environmental groups that have been involved in sage grouse management in Wyoming for years are growing frustrated by the federal intrusion on their plans.

Though developed by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies, the strategies were part of a wide collaboration in Wyoming with state officials, energy companies, landowners and conservation groups like the Audubon Society.

“Sec. Zinke’s direct statement has been that he wants to open those priority habitats up to further development,” said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy advisor for the Audubon Society. “That is an anathema to these plans.”

The bird simply won’t survive more intrusion onto its key habitat, he said.

Whatever happens to the bird in the coming years, the debate, and the repercussions if other states weaken protections, will come back to Wyoming, he said.

“All of the restriction will be placed on us,” Rutledge said. “As those other populations wink out, what we will have to do is put even heavier protections in the places that maintain habitat.

“The pressure will be on the state that has done the best job of managing its sage brush ecosystem.”

The governor also expressed a degree of worry Friday about the unknown nature of the changes. Until the Interior Department has made its intentions clear, the governor would not speculate on what could be amended. But Mead has written a number of public letters to the Interior advising that the plans be kept whole and discouraging talk of setting population targets instead of focusing on habitat protections.

Mead admitted that there are some changes that could be problematic for the bird, but change itself could also be dangerous if it is not carried out thoughtfully, he said.

“Mineral companies need long-term predictability as they decide where to put capital. On top of that the bird needs a long-term plan,” the governor said. “We can’t have wholesale changes in wildlife management every four or eight years. I don’t think that is the best way to sustain populations or provide the necessary predictability to industry and business in our states.”

The oil and gas industry group Western Energy Alliance has called for action following the federal review of the sage grouse plans. The group was not one of the key players in developing the plan in Wyoming, but has been vocal on the need for changes that support energy development.

Many other groups weighed in after the news of big changes was leaked to the New York Times, including Back Country Hunters and Anglers, the National Wildlife Federation, the Western Leaders Network and the Western Watersheds Project.

“The Obama administration weakened sage-grouse protections in federal plans in response to pressure from state governors, creating a crazy-quilt of loopholes that exempted the industries causing the most damage to sage grouse in each state from complying with protections,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist working for the conservation group Western Watersheds Project in response to the NYT news.

“The existing federal sage-grouse protections already are far too weak to sustain sage grouse populations in the face of commercial uses that are being approved on public lands in many areas.”

Western Watersheds was the group that sued the feds in 2007 after they ruled the declining bird was not warranted for a listing. That lawsuit led to the rapid development of a sage grouse task force in Wyoming, and the gradual workings of a plan in the state to avoid a listing decision.

For Mead, there are parts of the plans that can do for changes or updates. But ahead of the Interior’s move, the governor reiterated a desire for caution. What no one in the West wants is another endangered species listing on the horizon, he said.

“It’s a very good place to start and a very good place to end up: ‘What is the states’ point of view on any changes we would make?”

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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