Sage Grouse

Two male sage grouse compete for a small piece of territory early April 17 on a lek in southern Natrona County. The Western Governors Association supported the Endangered Species Act but asked Congress to make changes.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

In response to Western “anger” over sage grouse conservation on public lands, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Wednesday that the department’s sage grouse management plans are under review.

It’s a move that some say will disrupt Wyoming-led efforts to save the declining population of the chicken-sized bird by changing the focus from conservation of threatened habitat to simply boosting the number of birds on the landscape. That stance flies against a consensus in the scientific community that without sagebrush habitat renewal and protection, the bird’s numbers will continue to fall.

A sage grouse team will evaluate the current management plans and report its findings with recommendations for next steps within 60 days, Zinke said in a call with reporters.

“This does not change or alter existing work that has been done,” he said. “But it prioritizes our work on the sage grouse.”

Zinke penned a secretarial order that will be made public Thursday morning outlining the review of the 2015 plans. The management strategies put together by Bureau of Land Management leaders, in collaboration with state and local partners, were a successful attempt to stave off an endangered species listing, which would have imperiled oil and gas development in places like Wyoming.

But the plans did not sit well with many westerners, according to Zinke.

“There have been complaints by several of the governors that their ability to use federal lands, whether it’s for oil and gas, recreation, timber, across the board, that some of the heavy-handedness on habitat doesn’t allow for some of those uses,” he said.

Zinke’s comments appear to diverge from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s public letters advising the secretary that the plans do not need wholesale review but time to work. The letters, dated April 19 and May 26, were also signed by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and warned the secretary against a numbers-based approach to saving the grouse. Wyoming has about 40 percent of the world’s sage grouse habitat and is widely acknowledged as a leader in the efforts to conserve the species.

In his Wednesday comments, the former congressman from Montana implied that the habitat-focused strategy for conserving the grouse could benefit from further study over other factors affecting the grouse like predation and West Nile virus, while new strategies like captive breeding of the bird may be considered.

Zinke’s view comes as a surprise to some in Wyoming, who were part of developing state plans in tandem with the local Bureau of Land Management leaders.

“It’s naïve,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the Rocky Mountain Region Audubon Society.

The secretary’s comments regarding habitat and captive breeding sounded off-kilter, Rutledge said. They are the opinions of someone who hasn’t spent significant time studying the grouse or its challenges, he said.

Captive breeding has been largely debunked as a viable conservation strategy by biologists in the West.

Though many in Wyoming disagree about the plan — some say it did not go far enough to protect the bird, others say it was too restrictive — most in Wyoming saw the strategy from the state and federal partners as a landmark event in collaborative conservation.

“I have been in the conservation business all my life,” Rutledge said. “I have a 50-year career in conservation. I have never seen the kind of collaborative effort put forth around sage grouse. It has included people from every walk of life.”

Others in the state say there is no reason to be alarmed, because Zinke made it clear that he wanted state input and was not looking to force states to review or revise their own plans.

Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, said he understood Zinke’s comments as an affirmation of continued state control.

“The good news is he said we are going to listen to the states,” Budd said. “That’s the best I would hope for. I don’t think there were any bombshells or anything out of the ordinary (in the announcement).”

Though Wyoming’s state plans takes a habitat-focused approach, some states may find a different strategy works best for them, Budd said.

Mead said in a statement Wednesday evening that he looked forward to working with the feds as they move forward.

“Wyoming has been a leader on this difficult issue,” he said, “and will continue its efforts.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


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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