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Sage Grouse

Two male sage grouse compete for a small piece of territory this spring. Wyoming sage grouse leaders say debate with feds over the bird is improving. 

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Some of Wyoming’s sage grouse leaders say the discord that began after the Interior Department announced it would review the bird’s protections in the West is giving way to Wyoming’s collaborative approach.

The comments were made at a meeting of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team last week, a body made up of federal and state agents, environmentalists and industry representatives that has steered sage grouse management in Wyoming for nearly a decade.

Sage grouse declines have concerning implications in the West. The bird is an indicator of the health of the western landscape and carries a risk that the federal government will list the species as endangered. A listing would put limits on one of Wyoming’s primary economic drivers, oil and gas development as well as restrict ranchers and mining operations in the state.

The establishment of federal plans in 2015 kept that listing at bay, but earlier this year the Trump Administration said it would review and potentially change the plans. Public comment on initial proposed changes closed earlier this month.

The review, and some of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments about what could be changed, kick-started a protest campaign from conservationists, warnings from the Wyoming and Colorado governors and some hesitation from industries like mining worried about long term predictability.

Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, tried to quiet some of the discord. He reminded members that the federal plans do have room for improvement and the hysteria of a top down rewrite of the plans was overblown.

Budd criticized media coverage of the issue, and said public perception of potential changes to the sage grouse plans have been far from the reality as he sees it.

Brian Rutledge, a policy adviser for the Audubon Society and a longtime conservation voice on Wyoming’s sage grouse management team, pointed out that it was rhetoric from the federal government that confused and frustrated people in the West.

There’s been a lot of fear about what is going to happen with the 11-state management plans brokered by the Bureau of Land Management and reflective of the strategies laid out by Wyoming’s state approach, he said.

“Let’s get over that,” Budd said. “All of us.”

Gov. Matt Mead’s policy adviser on sage grouse, Mike McGrady, said the tone from federal leadership had improved, particularly with the Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The Bureau of Land Management received more than 200,000 comments on the department’s initial notice opening up the plans, many of those from letters, according to members of the sage grouse team.

Different states have different issues with their plans, said Budd. For Idaho, that could be a wholesale revision, for Oregon no significant changes.

In Wyoming, home to more than 30 percent of the bird’s population, changes will be suggested that clarify or improve the current strategy, Budd said.

“We are not looking at changing what we do in Wyoming,” he said. “We are looking at making it clear.”

Environmentalists in the room said they hoped that change was happening and that the federal approach would be methodical. But they’d wait and see what comes out of the government’s response to public comment in January before they felt optimistic.

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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