Gov. Matt Mead criticized on Monday a key aspect of the federal government’s new plan for managing the imperiled sage grouse, arguing that it ignores the scientific consensus on protecting the bird.
Mead made the comments hours after the Department of Interior announced a change in approach for sage grouse conservation, which is critical in states like Wyoming because the birds share habitat with oil and gas development.
In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a 60-day review of sage grouse management on federal lands, citing Western “anger” at how the Obama-era plans were designed to the detriment of energy development. The review led to a number of suggested changes to the plans that cover the entirety of the sage grouse habitat, over 11 Western states.
The federal plan considers setting population targets for the states to hit. It also clarifies rules for ranchers and companies, allows for possible adjustments to key habitat boundaries and calls for further investigation into breeding the grouse in captivity.
Many in Wyoming welcome what they see as improvements to the plans and believe Zinke’s promise of enhanced state control will be good for the bird and energy industries. Others are alarmed that federal agencies will now place the interests of oil, gas and mining above conservation. But it is Zinke’s repeated mention of population targets that has triggered the broadest pushback, from conservationists to the governor of Wyoming.
“We’ve got to have good science lead the way, and that trumps politics,” Mead said. “Let’s look at what the states have done, and what biologists, folks who know this, are telling us.”
Up until now, the underlying strategy for sage grouse conservation in the West has been to preserve crucial habitat. The bird is a sagebrush-obligate species, and biologists argue that preserving the space where it lives is the only way to keep the bird from slowly disappearing from the West.
Zinke and others endorse a more varied approach that could also use captive breeding programs to boost grouse numbers. However, most scientists doubt that strategy will work.
The Cowboy State is home to the majority of the sage grouse population, nearly 40 percent, and has been a leader in the birds’ conservation for nearly a decade. It was state and federal plans to protect the bird’s sage-brush habitat that staved off an endangered species listing in late 2015, a designation that could have been crippling for extractive industries. Wyoming is an energy-dependent state, counting on mineral taxes for about three-fourths of its income.
With all these considerations in mind, the governor said he questions the idea of a numbers game for the grouse.
“We are in a very good spot right now, not having the sage grouse listing. We have to remember that is not something we can take for granted,” Mead said. “A lot of work has been done in a collaborative process. Whenever there are changes, we’ve got to be careful that we are headed in the right direction.”
Simply put, population targets are not the way to go, he said. It’s a point he’s made publicly multiple times, and one he raised personally in a meeting with the Interior secretary last month, he said.
Sage grouse populations ebb and flow on a multi-year cycle. They also are sensitive to changes in their environment. A year with little rain or too many brush fires can drive down the population dramatically, the governor said.
But conserving the bird based purely on numbers also raises questions of accountability if populations do go down, the governor said.
“If one state manages to population and they don’t maintain the population, are all states going to be listed then?” the governor asked. “I still don’t know how the population aspect is going to work. We still strongly believe that management for habitat, based upon what science tells us, is the best way to do it.”
The governor was not critical of the department’s entire review and said the federal team going over the sage grouse plans had been earnest in their attempt to listen to state leaders.
Others were more wary of the federal interventions and less appreciative of the results.
Joy Bannon, field director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and a member of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, said the work of decades was now “up in the air.”
“The administration has thrown open conservation plans developed with input from a lot of diverse interests. In contrast, this review has taken place largely behind closed doors with little or no input from the general public,” she said in a statement Monday. “This reworking of the plans could lead us to the very outcome we were trying to avoid – sage grouse on the endangered species list.”
A population-based approach is doomed to fail, said Brian Rutledge, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Region Audubon Society.
“That (would be) the end of sage grouse,” he said. “I am counting on the governors to not let this happen.”
Rutledge has been a key figure in sage grouse conservation in Wyoming, working hand in hand with industry groups to develop the state management plans, much of which became the federal approach.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that the plans were held together in large part,” Rutledge said, nodding to the “good old-timers” in places like the Bureau of Land Management that likely fought for the plans.
However, he was concerned that the changes employ an energy-first mentality that will not coincide with sage grouse protection. It’s a concern that’s been growing in recent months. Rutledge has noted that the energy-first approach is already affecting how BLM approaches large oil and gas developments in sage grouse habitat.
“When we say oil and gas comes first, we’ve seen it before and it doesn’t work,” he said.
One of Rutledge’s main partners in Wyoming has been Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs for Jonah Energy and a fellow member of the state’s sage grouse management team.
Jonah is developing a large-scale project in western Wyoming designed to reduce the impact to a crucial winter sage grouse habitat in the region, its proponents say.
Ulrich disagreed with the conservationists’ concern that Zinke’s updates would be catastrophic for the grouse.
“What I read throughout the entire document, let alone Zinke’s memo, is more cooperation and deferment to state plans,” he said.
There are also improvements in the plans that are necessary, he said.
Over the last 10 years extensive efforts to save the grouse have placed considerations to oil and gas development on the back burner, he said.
A common complaint from companies is the time it takes to get projects approved and permitted. These updates are a step toward addressing those setbacks for companies, he said.
“I think we are going to see more of a balance and more consideration for allowing development where we should have been focusing for the last 10 years anyway,” Ulrich said.
The oil and gas man said he did not believe the conflict brought by this sage grouse review would harm Wyoming’s unified approach to sage grouse management.
“We’re too strong of a group. We simply are,” he said. “In Wyoming, we’ve led this effort nationwide for over a decade and I fully expect will continue to do so.”
The governor said he agreed that streamlining the processes that allow for oil and gas development needs to be a priority for the federal agency.
“Clearly, we’ve got to have robust oil and gas development, not only in Wyoming but in the West,” the governor said. “I don’t think the report as we read it now is as transformative as some suggest. I just don’t sense that.”
The sticking point for the governor, like some in the conservation field, is population over habitat.
As for controversial ideas like boosting numbers through captive breeding, a concept that the Wyoming Legislature recently allowed on a trial basis, the governor is unpersuaded.
“Somebody’s got to convince me of the benefit of going down that road,” he said.