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Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse struts in April on a lek in southern Natrona County. Conservationists claim BLM sage grouse report left out about 100,000 comments supporting the existing protections. 

A funny bird with serious implications for Wyoming energy continues to divide the west, according to a summary of public comments published recently by the Bureau of Land Management. But conservation advocates say the summary leaves out about 100,000 comments in support of existing protections.

The Bureau of Land Management quietly released the initial report Friday which details responses to potential changes to federal management plans for the bird.

Sage grouse neared an endangered species listing two and a half years ago, but federal and state plans to protect sage grouse habitat staved off a listing. The decision was hailed as a successful collaboration between states, federal agencies and private citizens, particularly in places like Wyoming, where a listing would have had dire impacts on the economy.

Last year, the new administration in the White House noted a need to evaluate federal policies that hamper energy development, which led to a reassessment of the Bureau of Land Management sage grouse plans.

The federal strategy for protecting the bird could be revised in a number of ways, taking into account different views across the bird’s 11-state habitat, and Friday’s report summarizes the public response to that possibility.

More than 20 conservation groups, including Backcounty Hunters and Anglers and the National Wildlife Federation, said about 100,000 of their comments supporting the existing plans appear to have been left out. The groups say the letters were sent to the appropriate Bureau of Land Management emails and have asked that the agency redo the report to include their comments.

Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management said they were looking into the complaint.

“We’re aware of the concern and are checking to ensure that all comments and issues are represented in the final scoping report,” said Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman from the national office.

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Many of the comments reflect oft-reported views on sage grouse and fell into two main categories. There were those who wanted the plans untouched or made stronger and those who wanted revisions to make the planning requirements more flexible. Environmental groups leaned to the former, while state governors and energy groups fell in the latter, according to the federal documents.

Some argued the plans needed to align more closely with state plans and some pushed to eradicate the plans in total.

The majority of the comments, 67 percent, came from individuals. Organizations, businesses and nonprofits were the second largest group and government submissions were the smallest, with 7.5 percent.

Wyomingites submitted the most comments out of the states impacted by the sage grouse plan, 10 percent, compared to 7.6 percent out of Idaho and 5.3 percent from Utah.

In total, states within the sage grouse planning area contributed 64 percent of the comments, while 18 percent were from states outside the sage grouse impact area.

Some of the discussions summarized by the Bureau of Land Management are technical in nature – attempting to tie standards to some measurable objective. Others are related to the foundations of the habitat approach. Some in Utah, for example, argued to eliminate general habitat designations and just leave the more crucial habitat in place, according to the agency’s report.

On nearly all topics, commenters differed but fell into the general camps noted by in the report’s summary – either keep the plans whole or make them more flexible.

Commenters opposed using population targets instead of habitat-based management, though some said captive breeding could be used if locals desired.

A Wyomingite asked the feds to amend the plans to make it clear that wind farms and sage grouse habitat don’t mix, according to Wyoming’s current approach. A ban of wind development in the bird’s habitat should stand until Wyoming has developed guidelines for wind in sage grouse areas. The most protected habitat, priority areas, should exclude wind development rather than just discourage it, another noted.

Utah and Idaho requested full consistency between state plans and federal plans. Other states were less stringent.

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The funny western species speckled across the West has declined in numbers due to human development, ranching and energy extraction in its habitat. Wyoming is now home to about 30 percent of the remaining population. The state has spearheaded conservation strategies for the bird, and much of the state’s approach is mirrored in the federal plans.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a series of statements last year that were at odds with Wyoming’s strategy but championed Western input. His statements disturbed a number of people in the conservation community across the West, and prompted Gov. Matt Mead and some other western leaders to walk a fine line balancing state’s rights and sage grouse science.

Zinke’s focus on population targets and the mention of minor issues like captive breeding appeared out of step in Wyoming, with the habitat-improvement philosophy of managing the bird.

Zinke and the Bureau of Land Management officials have also noted the importance of aligning public land management in the West with support for fossil fuel extraction, particularly oil and gas, another point that worried conservationists.

Brian Rutledge of the Audubon Society and a member of Wyoming sage grouse management team, said he was cautiously optimistic on the direction of the federal handling of sage grouse since the kerfuffle last year.

The federal agency had to mount a learning curve regarding what works in conservation, and Wyoming in particular needed to help them get to the other side, he said.

“The overwhelming response has been do what we were doing,” Rutledge said. “Don’t try and build a new railroad. This is a proven strategy that we are using.”

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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