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Sage Grouse

Two male sage grouse compete for a small piece of territory last year. A Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman in Washington rejected on Monday a local official's characterization that the release of federal sage grouse plans are on hold. 

A recent comment by a Bureau of Land Management official in Wyoming regarding sage grouse was refuted Monday by the agency’s Washington, D.C., office.

At issue is when the federal government plans to release a final report on changes to sage grouse management that could have broad implications across the West.

The Interior Department’s progress has been hampered in its goal to have a newly minted road map for the bird released to the public before the end of the year by conflicts outside of Wyoming, according to BLM officials in the state.

“We are on temporary hold while (Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt) works out some details with other states,” the BLM’s Jenny Marzluf said at a Friday meeting of Wyoming’s state sage grouse team. “Until then, honestly, indefinite hold. We haven’t heard any ‘next move.’”

A BLM spokesperson in Washington, D.C., explicitly rejected that characterization Monday.

“The BLM is actively working to resolve remaining internal issues before publishing the Final EISs and proposed plan amendments, but there is currently no definite timetable for publication,” she said in an email Monday.

The next era for the odd bird that struts above Wyoming’s minerals and across its ranchland is still uncertain more than a year after the Bureau of Land Management began an overhaul of its sage grouse management strategies. That uncertainty began with the change of administration in Washington, as the new Interior Department focused on Western land issues that conflict with economic development, placing sage grouse plans in the cross hairs.

A new direction

Pressure to rapidly fix perceived problems with sage grouse management on federal land came early on in the Donald Trump administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke noted in mid-2017 that some in the West were angered by the way sage grouse management had played out. He ordered a truncated review of the dozens of plans across the West that were put together under the Obama administration. Those plans were largely based on a Wyoming model.

Zinke’s review spurred anxiety among some in Wyoming who were loyal to the existing plans and pushback from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who urged caution given the importance of the bird’s management in relation to economic drivers like oil and gas development in the state.

Proposed changes that arose from Zinke’s review, and from later discussions between states and the federal government, are either a death knell for the species or moderate adjustments depending on which Westerner has the mic. The pinch point in Wyoming is how much drilling access exists in sage grouse’s neighborhood.

The final environmental impact statement, incorporating the Trump administration’s changes, could chart a new course for the bird in Wyoming, but that direction is not fully certain. The final environmental impact statement was expected by October, then early December and is now in a temporary holding pattern with no fixed release date.

Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team — a body of Wyoming industry, environment and government representatives — noted in the team’s meeting on Friday that the problem was with some of Wyoming’s neighbors, who have different state plans and expectations from the federal agency. Budd alluded to a certain “six-sided state,” a reference to Utah.

Less pragmatic approaches to balancing sage grouse and development have often originated in that state.

A new governor of the grouse

The sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird that lives across 11 Western states, with the most birds and the most habitat located in Wyoming. Its population’s precipitous slide sparked considerations of an endangered species listing, spurring Wyoming to develop a state approach to conserve the bird. That work, combined with a federal land approach from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, precluded a listing for sage grouse in 2015. Though the federal plans did not please everyone, they were considered a success due to the broad collaboration that formed them.

Wyoming has interests to protect with the federal plans that are broader than the bird’s survival — such as mineral development. A listing would have been a heavy burden on some private landowners and ranchers, but would also pose incredible risks to Wyoming’s key economic drivers like oil and gas.

Mead has been closely aligned with the sage grouse dilemma throughout his term. That responsibility will pass to Gov.-elect Mark Gordon in January. The new governor, whose background on the sage grouse issue is a personal one related to his family ranch, will get a crash course in the federal-state balance once the BLM releases its final version of the plans.

State governors are allowed a consistency review period after the final document is released by the BLM. That gives states one last place to voice concerns before the new plans come into effect. Given the current timeline, the governor’s review for checking whether the federal plans align with the Wyoming’s plans may fall during the transition between Mead’s administration and Gordon’s.

“Obviously, if [the final BLM assessment] comes out between now and the inauguration, we will certainly do our due diligence and look through it,” said Mike McGrady, Mead’s policy adviser and representative on the state sage grouse team. “We’ve been working on (sage grouse management) for a while now.”

Mead’s team would be available to assist Gordon’s in whatever way possible, McGrady said. But conversations specifically regarding the governor’s role in reviewing BLM’s plans have not yet taken place, he said.

Gordon said in an email Monday that he would work with Mead’s team on sage grouse issues during the transition. He noted his personal experience with the grouse, given his family’s work to secure certainties for his ranch against a potential listing of the bird.

“I plan to be a strong advocate for the state-led approach Wyoming has executed to conserve sage grouse, while providing consistent sideboards for our key energy and agricultural industries,” he said.

“BLM has been responsive to Wyoming’s input and I hope this delay (in the release of the final plans) is not a significant change of course,” Gordon said.

Drilling and the grouse

There is precedent for the BLM’s final moves causing friction in Wyoming. When the current plans were published in 2015, Mead’s office hit back with a list of issues that it had with the BLM’s direction, noting in a letter that aspects of the plans placed “unreasonable management constraints on Wyoming’s mineral and livestock producers and other users of public land beyond those necessary to protect the Greater sage-grouse.”

State sage grouse leaders like Budd, chairman of SGIT, are not anticipating surprise changes in the upcoming plans.

“I hope, and we’ve been assured, that it will not be another midnight massacre like we did in ‘15,” Budd said at the meeting Friday, acknowledging that some in the room still were wary of a repeat.

Divisions on proposed federal changes persist within the Wyoming team, which is composed of representatives from industry, agriculture, the environmental community and government. Brian Rutledge, policy adviser for the Audubon Society, noted his trepidation during the Friday meeting with plans to cut a requirement to prioritize oil and gas activity out of the bird’s habitat.

The lingering debate in Wyoming is whether limitations on industry in sage grouse areas should come at the leasing phase or the drilling phase for oil and gas.

He noted large acres of federal land being leased in sage grouse habitat for oil and gas development, something that the current plans should be discouraging from the perspective of the environmental community.

Just this month a federal judge in Idaho halted the Bureau of Land Management’s lease sale of parcels in Wyoming that overlapped with the bird’s domain. The judge expressed doubts about the Trump administration’s ability to offer the required public comment on an accelerated timeline. In accordance with the judge’s decision, the Bureau of Land Management punted those tracts — meant for a sale this year — to a special February sale to allow a longer period of time for the public to weigh in.

Budd, the sage grouse team’s chairman, said he disagreed with concern over the prioritization language. Budd and Mead have favored limitations that come at the drilling phase.

“You have more than one state to be concerned with, which I don’t, thank god,” he said of Rutledge’s concern. “But all I can say is I think where we are in this state we have the certainty, we have the authority.”

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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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