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Sage grouse

A male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours outside Baggs in March of 2017. A coalition of ranchers, coal mining firms and conservation agencies have come together to protect threatened species and ensure the continuation of industries in the Thunder Basin.

Another federal agency is considering changes to sage grouse management in the West, a charge led by the Interior Department since earlier this year due to what the Interior Secretary described as Western “anger” about federal overreach.

Tuesday the U.S. Forest Service announced that it would follow the Bureau of Land Management’s footsteps, inviting the public to offer proposed changes or respond to some of the Interior Departments suggestions, such as re-drawing boundaries around protected areas and changing the amount of activities like oil and gas allowed in crucial habitat.

In Wyoming, the Forest Service plans may center on grazing rights, a key complaint from ranchers.

Both agencies’ approaches to sage grouse protections have been largely based on the Wyoming strategy of identifying and protecting key habitats, and many in the state, including Gov. Matt Mead, have highlighted the importance of making small changes rather than wholesale adjustments in the federal approach.

As home to the majority of the bird’s population, Wyoming has been a leader on the sage grouse issue for more than a decade, an effort in part due to fear of an endangered species listing. That designation could upend some of the state’s key industries. The federal and state plans, though contentious, were credited with staving off a listing two years ago.

The Forest Service announcement was expected. If it results in change, the impact would be less widespread than potential BLM amendments, experts say. The Forest Service only manages about 2.3 percent of occupied sage grouse habitat in Wyoming, where the BLM oversees about 40 percent, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

But the Service is nonetheless a cooperating agency that helped develop the plans and would need to be aligned with the BLM on key issues.

A spokesman said opening up the plans in light of the BLM decision to do the same was “prudent” so that practices are manageable for ranchers, industry and others.

“We want to make this as straightforward as possible to people on the ground, given subtle differences in policy (between the BLM and the Forest Service,)” said John Shivik, spokesman for the agency.

In Wyoming, the Forest Service manages areas like the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, home to the two largest open surface coal mines in the country: Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mining complex and Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine.

A spokesman for the Wyoming Mining Association said its position on federal changes, whether from the BLM or the Forest Service, is the same: listen to the states and avoid wholesale changes.

“Wyoming has done a lot of work on the sage grouse issue,” said Travis Deti, WMA executive director, in an email. “While not perfect, the state’s plan is working.”

But it’s not mining that’s most concerned by federal plans. It’s the ranchers in this instance.

Those in the livestock industry feel they have been backed into a corner, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

“It’s unfortunate that we got to this point, but our position is it’s critical for us that the plans be opened,” he said.

One key issue in the both agencies’ plans has to do with grazing practices. Ranchers have to wait until the grass is a certain height before they can let their livestock graze on federal land in some areas so that sage grouse have a place to nest and hide.

Waiting for the grass to grow can delay the grazing rotation up to a month or more, and ranchers are put in a position where there is no good place to house their livestock, Magagna said.

It’s an issue ranchers have raised since the beginning, and they felt ignored when the grass height provision ended up in the final plans, he said.

Ranchers, however, echo their governor in advocating only marginal changes.

“We don’t want to see [the plans] destroyed,” Magagna said.

Destroying the sage grouse plans is exactly what many in the environmental community say is already happening, both in the rhetoric and in practice.

Some of the Interior’s suggestions, which the Forest Service is also seeking public comment on for their plans, have struck an ominous tone for environmental groups like the Audubon Society.

Of particular concern is talk of managing to population numbers rather than protecting habitat, a seemingly dry difference, but one that serves as a foundation for the current management strategies.

Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for Audubon, has worked on the state’s plans for years and said he is aware of the frustration that’s been voiced by ranchers. In some instances, the BLM plans have come under fire due to the grazing issue, which is really a Forest Service complaint, he said

“We’re concerned and interested, because we need to see [the agencies] become more consistent with the ranchers and overall planning, but we don’t want to see [the agencies] back away from overall protections,” he said.

Forest Service is accepting public comment for 45 days, ending Jan 5. The BLM also has a 45-day period, notably shorter than many of the periods of public input associated with sage grouse over the years. The BLM also recently held two public meetings in Wyoming on suggested changes.

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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