Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse puffs out its chest early April 17 on a lek in southern Natrona County.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

New plans to manage an iconic Western species disregard scientific consensus.

And that’s not coming from conservationists alone. It’s also coming from Republican Gov. Matt Mead.

Mead is familiar with the work and time that various groups in Wyoming have invested into designing a plan to manage the sage grouse – and he knows it’s solid. The state has by any measure cemented its status as a leader in balancing development with conservation of the bird, which makes its home in 11 Western states and depends on the sagebrush ecosystem.

And it should be. Those groups ought to be applauded for the critical compromises they came to. They’re especially important here in Wyoming, where 40 percent of the world’s sage grouse live and which has the highest potential for conflict between the birds and development efforts.

But that’s not what new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke saw. Zinke, from Montana, said “anger” from Westerners over how the plans limited development prompted him to launch a 60-day review of the state plans. Recently, the department released its own blueprint.

The new strategy handed down from the feds includes a troubling focus on population targets rather than habitat preservation, which biologists have long said is the best way to support the threatened bird.

The new focus opens the door to a worrying avenue of thinking: that having a certain number of the grouse, by any means necessary, is more important than maintaining the sagebrush environment they need to survive in the long term. For example, the new approach could also include captive breeding efforts, the limited data for which is not promising. Adding new birds to an environment that can’t support them is a recipe for disaster.

Population targets have also been criticized because numbers of sage grouse naturally cycle up and down and because their health depends so heavily on their habitat, which is often beyond human control. A dry season, for example, could certainly take its toll.

Some might wonder why the fate of the chicken-sized bird carries such great weight – and why groups representing all sides should be motivated to work together to solve these problems. The answer is simple: If sage grouse are placed on the endangered species list, an outcome that seemed likely just years ago, no one wins. The designation would hamstring development and be seen as a failure of conservation efforts. It is essential that Wyoming and other states are able to manage these populations so that both wildlife and energy can thrive on our land.

“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.”

Recent decisions on the sage grouse have not been promising in this department, but the states still have some flexibility. Even in light of the disappointing changes at the federal level, Wyoming must remember how important it is that populations and ecosystems are maintained.

There is still hope for the sage grouse. Leaders in our state know what needs to be done to support this Western species. And no matter which way the political winds are blowing in Washington, D.C., they should focus on what matters most: preserving the bird, its habitat and the important work that was achieved only by compromise.

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