The narrow window allowing a Casper oilman to farm sage grouse in captivity hasn’t closed yet in Wyoming. But with a lone farmer yet to collect wild bird eggs to start the experiment, Wyoming lawmakers are now considering a significant extension.
Sage grouse breeding was greenlighted by the Legislature in 2017, despite strong criticism from the scientific community. Its proponents were given a five-year time frame to carry it out.
Two years on, the program has failed to take flight.
In a bill added to the docket this week in the Wyoming Legislature, the five-year sunset for certified farms would be extended ten years, transforming the controversial attempt to breed the finicky sage grouse into a potential 15-year endeavor.
Sponsor Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, who sponsored the original legislation for captive breeding as well as this time extension, did not respond to requests for comment by press time. Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said farming simply needed more time than was provided.
“When we passed this bill 2 years ago allowing for a sage grouse farm, we were too optimistic in the estimation of time needed to write rules, gain approval and actually set up a sage grouse farm,” he said in an email.
Boner said he believed sage grouse farming could help prevent an endangered species listing in the future.
The sage grouse was nearly listed under the Endangered Species Act in recent years but was precluded from those federal protections in a 2015 decision by the Obama administration.
State, private and federal efforts to conserve the bird were deemed sufficient to keep sage grouse from further declines. Captive breeding — a move that is generally proposed as a last-ditch effort by scientists — was not part of the conservation mindset in the sage grouse strategy.
It’s not something that biologist or conservationists in Wyoming like to consider in regard to sage grouse, a bird whose numbers are fine considering the habitat.
“We don’t have a bird problem,” said Brian Rutledge, policy adviser for the Audubon Society. “We have a habitat problem. The habitats are carrying what they can carry.”
More birds, captively bred or otherwise, would just crowd a strained landscape, he said.
Captive breeding also became a heated topic following the election of Donald Trump. In 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke mentioned the potential of captive breeding as part of criticism of sage grouse conservation strategies in the West. His comments, and a review of sage grouse plans, set off months of hostility between the administration and conservation groups, with a number of Wyoming agencies and partners caught in the middle. Then-Gov. Matt Mead cautioned Zinke a number of times publicly about captive breeding versus the habitat strategies developed in Wyoming.
From questions about privatizing Wyoming’s wildlife to worry about introducing disease to the wild population from a captive population, breeding the bird in Wyoming was contested.
But, after a persistent lobbying effort by Wyoming oilman and former president of the Wyoming Senate, Diemer True, state lawmakers allowed a limited opportunity for breeding the bird in captivity, much as game birds like pheasants are hatched and raised for release and hunting.
True said the captive breeding experiment could help with the bird’s conservation down the road or be used as conservation credit for industry.
His farm, Diamond Wing Upland Game Birds, was the only one to apply for a license and was certified last January. True and his farm manager Karl Bear argued that now was a good time to try captive breeding while there are still birds in plenty. If they could have success it would offer one more “arrow in the quiver” to protecting the species from decline.
Once allowed by the Legislature, rule development for the program fell to the Game and Fish Department. Their framework was strict, from annual review of certification to specific rules regarding enclosures for the birds.
Tom Christiansen, former sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, was part of that process. He said the team tried to walk a fine line, making the rules strong enough to create a successful program but stopping short of regulating the experiment to the point where it’d be impossible for anyone to try.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “The legislation was there. We had to do it and so we wanted to do it right.”
By March of last year, it looked like the captive breeding program was headed for bust.
True sold the farm to another oilman, co-owner and general manager of Fiddleback Farms, LLC, Dennis Brabec.
Brabec told the Powell Tribune after acquiring Diamond Wings in October that the process for farming sage grouse had been made unnecessarily difficult.
True, meanwhile, has continued his effort to get lawmaker support and has spoken to lawmakers like Harshman about the need for more time, he said. True is largely focused on developing his nonprofit, Sage Grouse Foundation, to fund the breeding program. Selling the farm was intended to create some distance and help resolve potential concerns about conflicts of interest, True said.
“My goal has never been anything other than to raise the bird in captivity to mitigate the possibility of having the bird listed as endangered and the catastrophic economic impact (of a listing),” True said.
True is a relatively new member to the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, representing industry’s interests.
It’s unclear what comes next for the bird’s farming future in Wyoming.
Despite big names attached to the measure extending the program’s life, including Harshman and former Senate president Eli Bebout, the bill’s been stuffed into an unrelated committee for consideration, often a sign that a bill is set to die.
True said he remains committed to making these efforts happen via the foundation. Fiddleback Farms intends to carry on, True said.
True declined to give his estimates on how much the breeding program would cost in total. He said Fiddleback was putting together numbers so that True’s foundation could attempt to find donations to meet that amount.