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Sage grouse

A male sage grouse struts in April 2015 on a lek outside Baggs.

Sen. John Barrasso stands behind Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead when it comes to sage grouse management, he said in a statement Thursday.

The senator’s comments were in response to the Department of the Interior’s planned review of federal sage grouse conservation plans, which have an outsize impact on energy development and ranching in the imperiled bird’s 11-state habitat.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke mentioned the possibility of broadening the way sage grouse population health is measured by setting population targets, an idea discouraged by many in the conservation community as well as leaders of a decade-long collaboration among western states to save the grouse from being listed as an endangered species.

“I share Governors Mead and Hickenlooper’s concerns that setting population targets is not the best way to manage this species,” Barrasso said, after commending the secretary for the review itself. “Comments like these reflect valuable state expertise that will help the Department of the Interior during the course of this review. I will continue to work with the administration as it implements its plan to conserve the sage grouse habitat in a more balanced way.”

Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have sent two letters to the Interior Secretary warning that population targets — a numbers-based approach to conservation— are fraught with complications. The co-chairs of the Western Governors Sage Grouse Task Force welcomed a review but pointed out that it was unlikely the plans needed wholesale changes.

In his comments Wednesday, the secretary said the review was in part due to complaints from Western governors that the federal plans were too heavy-handed.

Sen. Mike Enzi, said in a statement that he appreciated the secretary’s tone of state collaboration.

“Secretary Zinke seems to be taking a listening posture which is positive,” Enzi said. “Wyoming has worked for decades to get to where we are in terms of Wyoming’s sage grouse plan. It’s a delicate balance between conservation, industry, state, local and federal concerns and a heavy-handed approach from Washington could upset that balance.”

Wyoming has led the charge on sage grouse management since 2008, when previous Gov. Dave Freudenthal called a task force together to stave off more serious federal measures as the bird’s population was in steep decline. What resulted was a state plan for management that identified core areas of habitat, essential for breeding, that would be protected from development. The federal plans follow a similar approach, identifying the most crucial areas, reducing surface disturbance in habitat areas and allowing oil and gas developers to make up for disturbance in one area that they want to drill, by enhancing the bird’s habitat in another area.

Though the plans left many groups frustrated, the overall contribution from conservationists, oil and gas companies, ranchers, federal agencies and state departments was considered a breakthrough in conservation and species management and credited with fending off an endangered species listing.

But the plans need time to work, proponents say. The sage grouse population rises and falls on a cycle, and long-term trends take time to decipher, they say.

The sage grouse is known for an elaborate mating ritual in which the male grouse inflates bright yellow air sacs on his chest and deflates them sending out a mating call that can be heard by females for miles. The species is iconic in the West and dependent on sage brush habitat to survive. Finicky and sensitive to noise, the grouse has been a challenge for energy production, from drilling wells to mining, key economic drivers in the state of Wyoming.

In comments to reporters Wednesday, Zinke said the review would bring parity to the federal approach to the grouse while giving states greater flexibility. He also said the review would bring sage grouse management in line with the president’s America First Energy Plan and presidential orders, which promise to review rules and regulations that inhibit energy development on public lands.

Those who are skeptical of the review fear it sets up the risk of an endangered species listing down the road, which would come with strict limitations on development in energy-dependent states like Wyoming.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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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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