Earl DeGroot
Star-Tribune editorial board

In 2010, acting on court order, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service explored the possibility of putting sage grouse on the endangered species list. Sage grouse numbers and available habitat had been declining for decades.

Western states responded with concern to the possibility of a listing because land use on millions of acres of federal, state and private land would be impacted. An endangered species designation would affect grazing, minerals production and many other activities. Wyoming stood to be most impacted because it has more sage grouse and sage grouse habitat than any other state.

In an attempt to avert a threatened or endangered listing, numerous western states initiated efforts to develop individual comprehensive management plans. Working with federal agencies, the various state-based collaboratives sought input from ranchers, the oil and gas industry, sportsmen, conservation organizations and many others. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service also created a comprehensive plan for federal lands. In 2015, after years of meetings and public input, state and federal plans were accepted by the United States Department of Interior in lieu of a listing. That decision is scheduled to be reviewed in 2020.

Unfortunately, recent developments have substantially derailed the plans. In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke began a 60-day internal review of the plans. Based on the results of that review, Zinke recently ordered a number of changes.

Some of those changes are troubling. For example, there is an obvious increased priority on oil and gas production as well as a change of focus from habitat protection to population numbers. Wyoming Gov. Mead, Nevada Gov. Zandolov and Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper have expressed concern that the changes may increase the chances of a listing in the future.

So why should Wyoming sportsmen be alarmed? If you have never hunted sage grouse and don’t intend to, perhaps you think the original plans and recent changes are of little interest to you. That would be a mistake, because many other species are also impacted.

While working on the Oregon plan a number of years ago, an Oregon rancher coined the phrase “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.” He was referring to his cattle, but the same can be said about herds of antelope, deer and elk. Much of the sage grouse habitat in Wyoming is prime big game winter range, and some of it encompasses critical migration corridors. Clearly if the state and federal plans conserve sage grouse habitat, then antelope, deer and elk will also benefit.

The shift in focus from habitat to population numbers is also troubling. It ignores the fact that sage grouse need good habitat to survive. The change in focus appears to offer a false hope that pen raised birds can be released into the wild to meet a threshold number that would avert an endangered species listing. In many cases, stocking pen raised birds into unsuitable habitat would be like stocking fish into a polluted lake. If stocked grouse or fish are going to thrive, they need to have suitable environmental conditions.

Unfortunately, some of Zinke’s recent changes were effective immediately. They were made with considerably less public input than provided through the earlier comprehensive planning process. They are an affront to the hundreds of people who worked many years in good faith to produce the original plans. More troubling than the circumvention of public input is the likelihood that sage grouse and other wildlife populations in Wyoming will suffer from the potential loss of habitat. Furthermore, Zinke’s changes re-introduce the very real possibility that Wyoming will be dealing with a sage grouse listing in the future.

If you care about Wyoming’s wildlife, I encourage you to contact Rep. Cheney, Sen. Barrasso and Sen. Enzi and ask them to put pressure on Zinke to restore the original plans as approved by the Department of Interior in 2015. You might also contact Zinke.

Earl DeGroot is a retired management consultant. He is a Republican with a master’s degree in natural resource management and a master’s degree in public administration.

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