Before Gov. Matt Mead began explaining to officials in Washington D.C. how to manage an imperiled western bird, he made sure they noted his position on the federal plans Wyoming already has in hand.
Don’t mess these up.
“I have advocated against dramatic changes to the way the states and the federal government manage sage grouse,” Mead wrote in a letter Monday to the Interior Department.
Wyoming agencies and state regulators also submitted their official comments to the Interior Department ahead of a Friday deadline for public input on changes to federal plans to manage the bird across 11 states.
Federal sage grouse plans helped preclude the bird from an endangered species listing two years ago. The bird has experienced a steep decline in numbers in the West due to loss of habitat from residential and energy development.
The federal sage grouse management approach hasn’t been without controversy. Polarized views on how to save the bird often clash, and nowhere more so than Wyoming, home to about 30 percent of the bird’s population.
Picking up on some lingering disagreements over the plans in the West, the Trump Administration initiated a snapshot review of sage grouse management earlier this summer and came up with a list of changes to be considered, some significant enough to spark a fair amount of pushback, particularly from environmental groups in the West.
But Mead has also been a key figure in advising caution, a conservative governor at odds with the direction and style of Interior. The plans were put together through collaboration and need a chance to work, Mead has said in the past.
Oil and gas regulators, heads of state lands and the Department of Agriculture were by and large in sync with the governor in their letters Monday, suggesting revisions that clarify language or that would bring the federal plans closer to what Wyoming does to manage the grouse.
They stop short of suggesting the kind of wide spread revisions that were thrown out earlier this year by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, such as allowing controversial methods like captive rearing be incorporated in some states, or shifting management focus to population counts rather than the habitat protections approved by the scientific community.
In his letter, Mead noted his continued disapproval of those strategies as inefficient and at odds with established science.
“Before I go through the areas where I would like to see changes, I need to be clear about the things that I do not want to see changed,” Mead wrote in his comments Monday. “I continue to resist any proposal that could lead to an Endangered Species Listing.”
Then the governor listed what’s wrong.
Wyoming lies at the heart of the sage grouse debate and may have the most to lose if the bird’s numbers continue to drop.
If the plans fail, Wyoming and 10 other western states will have to grapple with a possible endangered species listing. In Wyoming, a listing would most certainly threaten the oil and gas industry’s ability to explore and drill, hobbling the bedrock industry of the Wyoming economy, experts agree.
Wyoming is heavily invested in the federal plans, and it led the way about a decade ago by developing a strategy to keep sage grouse from blinking out. The Bureau of Land Management plans in the cross hairs today largely follow in Wyoming’s footsteps.
But there are disputed areas in the complicated federal documents that lay out sage grouse protections.
Many of the Wyoming comments took issue with “net conservation gain,” a goal post that essentially asks that a sage grouse habitat is improved upon after disturbance, not just repaired.
This better-than-you-found-it provision is too vague to be consistently applied and leads to confusion on the ground, Mark Watson of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission wrote in his official comment Monday.
The Office of State Lands and Investments had similar criticism of the net gain language, along with skepticism over federal standards for grazing in sage grouse areas.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department asked that the feds align their mitigation requirements with Wyoming’s.
A host of industry and agricultural groups also put their two cents in on the federal changes. Most in Wyoming report that they do not want widespread changes to the plans, but each have adjustments that in one way or another would ease restrictions.
Environmental groups, however, have been outspoken in their concern over Interior’s actions.
Any management approach as complex as the one written for sage grouse will have areas that need to be improved, said Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning at The Wilderness Society.
But the suggestions offered by the Interior are not surgical adjustments, and the motive has been clear, the environmental lawyer said.
“We have significant concerns about the stated effort to look at the potential change of the plans through this lens of removing any restrictions on energy development,” she said. “If we start to take away the management of energy development, we start to take away from the effectiveness of the plans.”
Interior’s report comes across as a list of things officials there simply don’t like, she said.
“That’s not a basis,” Culver said. “That’s not a scientifically reported recommendation.”
The governor’s comments Monday close with requests he’s made all summer: that the feds keep in mind the 11-state impact of a potential listing and focus on changes that don’t require overhaul of the plans. Lastly, in keeping with his mild requests for collaboration, he offered up Wyoming’s expertise on the grouse once again.
“Working together, we can more fully identify all of the areas that could be improved,” he said.