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Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse chases off a rival in 2015 on a lek near Baggs. Gov. Mark Gordon is seeking public input until May 1 on revisions to the state's management of the bird's habitat.

Following the Trump administration’s controversial thinning of a chubby Wyoming bird’s habitat protections, the state’s new governor has asked the public for feedback on potentially updating Wyoming’s sage grouse strategy, an approach that’s been built over the last decade to try and keep the bird off the endangered species list and its needs in balance with agriculture and mineral development.

Sage grouse neared an endangered species listing due to dramatic population declines and habitat loss in the West, but that federal designation, which would have threatened Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, was avoided in 2015 due to federal and state plans to protect the bird’s habitat.

The Trump administration recently revised the federal side of that approach, a response to what former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had called Western “anger” over sage grouse management. The changes inspired another kind of frustration — from Western groups that see the changes as a giveaway to oil and gas that will push the bird towards an endangered species listing. Others have argued that federal management plans are now more closely aligned with the state’s, which in Wyoming’s case, has meant sturdy plans.

Gordon said in a statement that he wanted input from the public to help him “improve on what is already working.”

“Wyoming has been leading in sage grouse management for more than a decade, and one of our hallmarks has been stability and predictability for all involved,” Gordon said.

Gordon, a rancher from Johnson County, has had personal experience with sage grouse on his land and has promised to maintain the tricky balance between the bird and other interests. The governor solicited feedback from state sage grouse leaders last month on how his role in sage grouse management — executive orders that date back to former Gov. Dave Freudenthal — may be revised.

The current call for public comment, which ends May 1, is an extension of that request, according to a press release Wednesday.

Wyoming is home to the majority of the sage grouse across the West and the largest areas of good habitat. What Wyoming does for the bird matters, but the state is also vulnerable to what happens to the bird beyond its borders. A listing decision would put strict protections on activities like oil and gas drilling on lands, public and private, through much of the state.

Gordon nodded to Wyoming’s deep investment in a good outcome for the bird alongside “responsible development,” in his statement Wednesday. How best to do this remains an issue of disagreement in the state, particularly in light of the changes on the federal side.

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The core principle of Wyoming’s work to save the bird, echoed in federal strategies developed in partnership with the state, has been to focus on maintaining good sagebrush habitat in areas where the bird is still flourishing and the habitat is still carrying large numbers of birds. In practice, that principle is carried out in a number of ways, such as identifying key habitats, repairing habitats that have been damaged by other activities and limiting the amount of disturbance near the bird’s breeding grounds, from roads to well pads.

Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming’s sage grouse management team, SGIT, said Gordon’s call for feedback was an attempt to be as transparent as possible. Budd had asked members of SGIT to provide comment to the governor during a meeting earlier this year, but the governor wanted to make sure the general public was part of that conversation as well, Budd said.

“I think this is just a very responsible approach from the governor to say ‘If there are things we need to look at, let me know,’” Budd said.

Transparency has been an early buzzword in the new governor’s tenure. But Gordon also enters office at a time of transition for the bird’s management in the Cowboy State and on the heels of strong disagreements from Western groups and sage grouse leaders in Wyoming about whether the Trump administration has tossed the bird — and its ecosystem — to the winds or is simply managing the species differently.

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Gordon’s call for information is already being answered by active sage grouse conservationists, like Brian Rutledge, a member of Wyoming’s sage grouse management team and vice president director of the Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

Rutledge has argued publicly that the federal changes have eroded the bird’s chances for success. He’s insistent that plans in Wyoming remain strong or improve even as the range-wide grouse population faces uncertainty.

“I’m going to forge ahead as if nothing has changed,” he said.

Rutledge said he plans to voice frustration to the governor over inconsistencies between Wyoming’s promises to prioritize protection in the bird’s best habitat while encouraging oil and gas drilling outside of those areas. Rutledge, and other conservationists, have been alarmed by federal oil and gas lease sales that overlap with the bird’s habitat. A recent February sale contained more than 700,000 acres of the bird’s domain in Wyoming, parcels that had been offered in a previous sale but were delayed because of a judge’s ruling that sage grouse habitat sales required more time for public input than the Trump administration had offered.

Gordon’s sage grouse advisers on the management team who represent energy, natural resources, conservation and agriculture are not in agreement over what the federal changes mean for the bird, particularly in regard to drilling for oil and gas. Gordon, in a statement following the federal changes, said the changes had been surgical. Other on SGIT agree.

Budd, of the sage grouse management team, said the Trump administration revisions bring federal plans into greater accord with Wyoming’s existing executive orders on sage grouse, from boundaries around habitat to the best way to effectively keep drilling out of habitat. Budd is not of the mind that leasing for oil and gas — a major concern from environmental groups of late — threatens habitat, because Wyoming has restrictions on drilling that accompany habitat leases.

Gordon’s call for comment likely won’t reshape the wheel. It doesn’t need to, said Budd.

“I don’t think anybody anticipates that it’s going to be a major overhaul of what we have,” he added.

Despite the desire among some groups for stricter protections to make up for federal changes, Budd stated Wyoming’s position has been stable and will remain so.

“There is no reason to make radical changes in Wyoming,” he said. “But how the governor goes is up to the governor.”

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Disagreement over the bird’s future largely comes down to where industry can and cannot drill and what is required of drillers who damage habitat.

For Budd and others, Wyoming has protections. It’s a dual-permitting state, so oil and gas drillers have to approach both Wyoming and the BLM to drill a well on federal land.

“The state of Wyoming has a very high bar,” he said.

Others say now Wyoming is dependent on federal agencies obeying state rules. And they are not confident that will work out.

Rutledge said what Wyoming needs to do now is live up to its executive orders and produce data to show how well or not well the rules are working.

The protections that Wyoming has implemented, that were adopted by the federal agencies, were meant to be flexible, he said. Instead, proposals like limiting surface disturbance to 5 percent and limiting the number of wells in a given area are being treated like the ceiling of the bird’s protections, he said.

“Now, we’ve locked in our hypothesis as the only answer,” he explained.

Rutledge said he was discouraged about the federal approach to the bird and the risks that it poses to the bird’s habitat. But he’s hopeful that Wyoming partners and the new governor understand the importance of protecting habitat.

“That’s the only way we ever get lift with this species, in repairing the damage we’ve done to the habitat.”

Public comments on revising the governor’s executive order are being accepted via email at wgfd.hpp@wyo.gov.

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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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