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Sage Grouse

Industry and environmentalists share dislike for federal sage grouse plan

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Seedskadee Sage Grouse

A greater sage grouse flies at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Sweetwater County. Ranchers, environmentalists and energy industry representatives are all displeased with a new federal sage grouse conservation plan. 

Environmentalists, ranchers and oil companies have found a rare point of consensus. All strongly dislike a new Department of Interior plan to save the sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that could be on its way to the endangered species list unless a plan can first be devised to save it. 

But that's where the similarities end. Environmentalists, in a recently filed protest, said the government strategy ignored its own scientists by keeping vital habitat open to drilling. 

Cowboys and rig hands see measures to protect the grouse as a restrictive burden that could greatly shackle their respective industries. 

Caught in the middle is Gov. Matt Mead, who has applauded the federal government for following Wyoming's lead in trying to balance conservation with economic development.

Mead nonetheless filed his own protest to the federal plan, criticizing the bureau's proposal to recommend 252,000 acres be made unavailable to mining, along with changes to leasing policies for oil and gas development and grazing.

Jeremiah Rieman, the governor's top policy adviser on natural resource issues, said Washington's plan deviates from Wyoming's strategy in lots of little ways. Add them all up, he said, and it could do great harm to the state.

Still, Rieman remains optimistic. State and federal officials are sitting down nearly every day to resolve their differences, he noted.  

"Right now everything is pointing toward us being able to address our issues," Rieman said. 

Not everyone shares his sunny outlook. The federal sage grouse strategy will be incorporated into 98 land management plans that dictate the terms of activities ranging from oil and gas development to recreation and wildlife protection on 22 million public acres across the West.

In Wyoming, the strategy has been included in the recently completed Bighorn Basin and Buffalo resource management plans. Nine other resource management plans in the state were also updated to take the new sage grouse measures into account. 

The protest period, which ended in June, represented the last chance for interest groups and state officials to influence the strategy before it is finalized later this year. 

Wyoming ranchers are particularly concerned. Three aspects of the plan raise their hackles. They worry Interior labeled grazing a disruptive activity to sage grouse, about seasonal restrictions limiting grazing and the use of range-land infrastructure like water wells and fencing. 

Mead will more than adequately plead the ranchers' case, said Jim Magagna, director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.  

"My concern is they (federal officials) will listen to the governor, but the changes they make will be a few cosmetic changes," he said.

Oil and gas interests generally loathe the plan. Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of the Western Energy Alliance, called it a "top-down, one-size-fits-all" approach. 

But she acknowledged the bureau had at least shown some deference to Wyoming's strategy, adopting large portions of the state's approach to federal land management plans inside the Cowboy State. 

The joint protest filed by the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the American Petroleum Institute and the Western Energy Alliance claims the Forest Service went beyond the state plan in establishing new areas of priority habitat. It also argues restrictions on drilling during mating season do not comply with Wyoming's plan and maintains the proposed noise limitations would be too difficult to meet.

Environmentalists, unsurprisingly, see things differently. Interior ignored the conclusions of the National Technical Team report from 2011, which recommended prime habitat be closed to development, said Erik Molvar, a biologist with WildEarth Guardians. The .6-mile buffer called for around leks also ignores the 3- to 5-mile setback called for in a 2013 U.S. Geological Survey report, he said.

"The BLM’s proposed plans and the Wyoming state plan share all the same key elements, including the conservation failures that don’t protect sage grouse," Molvar said. "It almost looks like a plan written by the oil and gas industry."

Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow


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