Documents reveal behind-the-scenes discord as western governors, including Gov. Matt Mead, grappled with the top-down approach to western land issues from the Trump administration, particularly when it came to sage grouse.
For states like Wyoming, the most influential western state in terms of the bird’s management, some actions by the Interior Department in the year and a half following Trump’s election were frustrating.
A private, Jan. 12 letter to the Interior’s Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt — signed by Mead and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, co-chairmen of the Western Governors' Association's Sage Grouse Task Force — expressed disappointment that the states were neither consulted nor alerted to an Interior order with significant effect on how states manage the bird.
Their concerns were rooted more in the lack of collaboration than the final outcome, though changes could have impacts on both the bird’s management and states’ economic interests, according to documents obtained through a public records request in Oregon by the Western Values Project and shared with the Star-Tribune.
The Western Governors Association’s sage grouse team had been a key partner with the feds on sage grouse management plans under the Barack Obama administration.
Establishing that state authority was not always easy.
There were political differences between conservative states and the administration at the time. But according to emails and letters regarding the Interior, the common complaint, made vocally and often under Obama, that the feds failed to treat states as equal partners was not always politically expedient to argue once the administration in power was politically aligned with some of these leaders.
The joint letter from the heads of the governors association was penned by Mead policy adviser Mike McGrady and shared with other governors in the West before it was sent. It received some pushback.
Dustin Miller, policy adviser for Idaho Governor Butch Otter, said Mead’s letter would be counterproductive. State officials there were also frustrated, he noted in a Jan. 10 email response regarding McGrady’s draft letter. But Idaho was gaining traction on changes it sought on the federal management plans.
“Over the past year, Idaho has developed and maintained a good working relationship with DOI, as they work through the process with us to make the necessary corrections to the federal sage grouse plans, and we certainly do not want to do anything that could compromise that relationship,” Miller wrote on Jan. 10.
The letter could distance the Department of the Interior from the Western Governors Association and its Sage Grouse team, Miller warned, advising those concerned to simply initiate a conversation with their counterparts at Interior.
Nevada’s governor’s office signed off on the final edits. Utah didn’t want its name attached to the letter but was “okay” with the chairman doing so, according to the documents. In the end only Mead and Hickenlooper signed the letter.
Silence from some corners of the West was not appreciated by all.
“I find this troubling,” wrote Brett Brownscombe, former adviser to Oregon Governor Kate Brown, to Brown’s then-natural resources policy adviser Jason Miner on Jan. 11. “When the shoe was on the other foot, many D governors were willing to call out poor process/relationship integrity and join across party lines. If the process employed here (not just on SO 3360 but other efforts coming out of DOI) was advanced in this manner by the Obama Admin., the states who are apparently not willing to call it out now would have been very vociferous then.”
Miner responded later that day saying he had discussed “the exact same dynamic” with Colorado policy adviser, John Swartout.
“I have trouble seeing how the [Sage Grouse Task Force] holds together if we cannot all endorse the cochairs letter,” Miner wrote.
The Star-Tribune sought a copy of the Mead letter before it was finalized or sent. In early January, Mead’s communications director responded to an email request from the Star Tribune for a copy of the letter with a recent public communication the governor had signed regarding sage grouse management. The Star-Tribune pressed for more recent communications that specifically dealt with the secretarial decisions or were sent to Bernhardt. Then Communications Director David Bush said he had spoken with McGrady and there were no other letters sent to Interior. That was true at the time. The letter was written as much as five days later and sent seven days later.
A spokeswoman from Mead’s office apologized Friday that the letter was not eventually provided, saying any miscommunication was unintentional.
It was clear in Wyoming from early on that Mead was not pleased with some of Washington’s new choices on sage grouse under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Though the WGA letter had not been previously made public, other correspondences from Mead to the Interior have been. These were largely words of caution against reckless changes to the federal management plans for sage grouse and reminders to keep the states involved in these decisions. Mead specifically called out some of the early rhetoric regarding population counts and captive breeding programs — two ideas that create particular friction in the scientific community, which focuses on habitat preservation and repair to maintain wild species.
Though Wyoming had disagreements with the federal management plans for sage grouse, the bulk of those plans were based on work done by Wyoming to avoid an endangered species listing.
Moderate as Mead’s approach was to the change in Washington, he’s since been credited for his leadership during that time when other western leaders’ voices were absent on the Interior’s direction.
In a state sage grouse meeting in December, Bob Budd, the leader of Wyoming’s sage grouse management team, noted that the press had overplayed discord with the Trump administration. He said there were open lines of communications and that early rhetoric had been replaced with more thoughtful dialogue.
Conservation groups have continued to push back on the sage grouse issue. Some have also expressed worry about the Western Governors Association’s effective management of sage grouse going forward, given that key leaders including Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado will have new governors.
The public records request that included the governors’ letter was obtained by the Western Values Project. The environmental group said it is seeking more accountability for the Interior’s handling of sage grouse and oil and gas leasing on federal land. Its public records requests sought information on the relationship between Oregon officials and the deputy secretary, who led a 60-day review of sage grouse plans last summer that resulted in revisions now under consideration.
The final environmental study on those changes is expected by the end of October, in keeping with the Trump administration’s goal to limit federal analysis to a one-year time frame when possible.
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Mead and Hickenlooper are co-chairs of the Western Governors' Association. They are former chairmen of the association and current co-chairs of the Sage Grouse Task Force.