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Wyoming's quiet governor faces a brash Interior Secretary, with a bird in the balance

Wyoming's quiet governor faces a brash Interior Secretary, with a bird in the balance

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To understand the latest battle over the greater sage grouse one need look no further than how Matt Mead and Ryan Zinke present themselves. Consider the bicep. For Zinke, the Interior Secretary, that’s easy. The department’s website offers a shot of the 56-year-old fly fishing, his flexed arm extended just so. Mead has formidable arms of his own. But the Wyoming governor poses in suits. Or shirtsleeves.

Of course, this isn’t a story about the biceps of western politicians. But it is about a federal administrator who seems close to unraveling one of the governor’s signature achievements — preserving sage grouse protections — and attacking one of Mead’s core beliefs about how politics should be conducted.

Mead exudes decency in his public persona. The 55-year-old prefers committees, task forces and multi-party initiatives to top-down orders. He is about as far from the zeitgeist of national politics in 2017 — the spectacle of clashing, aggressive personalities — as one can be.

If Mead is an outlier, he matches his state well. Wyoming is important, but quietly so. Quietly providing 40 percent of the nation’s coal. Quietly fighting Obama-era regulations in the courts. Quietly spending a decade developing its own conservation plans for the imperiled sage grouse that were eventually picked up by federal agencies and implemented in some form across 11 western states.

Over the summer, Zinke opened a 60-day review of those federal sage grouse management plans put in place to stop the bird from being listed as an endangered species. The review was followed by a notice in the federal register signaling key aspects will be reconsidered. The public has 45 days to respond.

The rushed timeline and long-term risk of weaker plans have led to strange bed fellows looking at Mead as their reluctant champion. And so onto a political landscape, where animosity is increasingly standard, struts an oblivious bird with a bright yellow chest, a swaggering former Navy SEAL-turned-bureaucrat and a mild-mannered western governor who doesn’t believe ruffling feathers gets the job done.

What could go wrong?


“It goes beyond just a bird to me and the reason it does is because what’s at risk.” — Matt Mead, Wyoming governor

It takes time for those new to the sage grouse dance to pick up its rhythm, the political, social and economic resonance it has across the West. From keeping Wyoming’s landscape open and wild to exploring for oil and gas and running livestock, virtually every western issue overlaps with the bird and conserving the places where it lives.

This isn’t as simple as whether the bird can coexist with a drilling rig. Experts say it’s about finding a way to repair a damaged habitat while maintaining the industries and interests of the people who love the West, the people who live and work in it.

“It affects everything. Industry — where they can drill, ranchers — how they graze their cattle,” said Dan Smitherman, Wyoming representative for the Wilderness Society, which opposes wholesale changes to the sage grouse plans that also protect the habitat of about 350 other species.

“It touches the entire political spectrum and nowhere more so than Wyoming.”

The state relies primarily on its energy economy for revenue. Nearly three-quarters of public funds come from taxes on mining companies. When Wyoming developed a sage grouse strategy to stave off an endangered species listing, it did so to protect the bird, sure, but more so to protect everything else. A listing doesn’t offer compromises for the Western way of life and cares little for state economies.

A listing has one objective: save the bird.

A governor has many.


“I certainly have all the confidence in the world in my governor.” — Paul Ulrich, industry representative on the Sage Grouse Implementation Team

On such a contentious issue, Mead is largely seen as having effectively shepherded a sage grouse policy acceptable to almost all those involved.

Now that the basis of the plan may be in jeopardy due to the federal review, those who’ve worked on sage grouse from the beginning — even those who say the plans are too strict, or not strict enough — like Mead’s style.

Mead is in the moderate camp when it comes to Zinke’s review. He believes there is room for improvement and clarification on what are complicated and detailed policies covering a wide span of the West, and Wyoming will be submitting its suggestions for change during the Interior’s public comment period.

But Mead has also voiced doubts.

“We understand that you are considering changing the Department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” wrote Mead and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper in a June letter to Zinke. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”

Many interested parties see Mead’s measured approach as an effective counterpoint to the ineffective divisiveness popular of late.

“I really believe there are a lot of us that might have handled (the sage grouse changes) differently,” said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy advisor for the Audubon Society.

Mead’s leadership, mild and diligent, may prove to be the most effective way to deal with Zinke, he said

A shadow strategy has developed for groups on all sides of the sage grouse debate: campaign for your interests, but stand with Mead while he takes the high road.

And it’s not only environmentalists that side with Mead when he respectfully disagrees with the administration’s approach.

The mining industries are worried. They don’t want a directive out of Washington to control sage grouse management in Wyoming.

“I think there is general concern that Interior’s reopening of the federal plan could result in a ‘top down’ approach and come with significant unintended consequences,” said Travis Deti, director of the Wyoming Mining Association in an email. “With the state plan, we know where we stand. With the feds taking another look, it injects the element of uncertainty.”

The governor has noted this concern, pointing out that constant change isn’t good for Wyoming’s industries, besides being a dismal approach to species management.

Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs for Jonah Energy, is hopeful. Ulrich is a member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, the body tasked with carrying out and updating the state’s conservation strategy. He believes industry has some valid concerns with the federal rules that can be alleviated without damaging the future of the grouse.

The core group that developed the plans in the first place is still there, and they haven’t changed their approach, he said, despite a number of distracting voices, from industry groups, environmental factions and politics.

“You are not going to affect significant change by battling it out in the media at any level,” Ulrich said, echoing his governor. “Where we have demonstrated success is sitting down at the table ... and having a good conversation that is based in reality and not rhetoric.”


“I guess it’s just however I am,” — Matt Mead, Wyoming governor

On the surface, Mead and Zinke have a lot in common. They were born in western states, went on to prestigious public service careers — Mead as a federal prosecutor, Zinke in the military — and ended up as Republican politicians considered moderates in a party that has veered to the right in recent years.

But Mead? He’s no Zinke.

Less than a year after being elected to the U.S. House in Montana, Zinke offered to become Speaker of the House. When he endorsed Trump, he offered to join the ticket as the vice presidential candidate. Zinke flies an obscure departmental flag when he’s working at his Interior Department office, a move his spokeswoman said is modeled after what military commanders do when they are “in garrison.”

He rode a horse to his first day of work.

Zinke’s also racked up a reputation as something of a bully. During the health care debate this summer, Zinke called Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who was refusing to vote for the GOP plan. Murkowski better fall in line, Zinke allegedly warned, or he might hold up energy development projects in her state.

(Zinke denies doing anything inappropriate and, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Meanwhile, Mead presides over Wyoming’s state government with little pomp. He tends to avoid talking points and favors coalitions over dictates. Mead’s signature initiative this year has been Endow, a 20-year plan to improve Wyoming’s economic diversity through a series of detailed studies and measured recommendations.

Whether or not Zinke’s resolve to change the federal sage grouse plan has raised alarms at the governor’s mansion in Cheyenne, Mead has so far declined to throw out his trusted political playbook.

“I just don’t think there’s any substitute — and particularly the more thorny the issue is — than continuing to reach out and try and find common ground,” he said.

Mead won’t entertain hypotheticals about what happens if his approach fails. But it’s clear this is an important issue to him, and it’s not just about sage grouse or a potential endangered species listing.

“It has meaning to the West beyond just this bird,” Mead said. “It has to do with the collaborative process, with our state being able to determine our own destiny.”

Wyoming’s sage grouse plan brings out one of Mead’s deeper beliefs about politics as they should be. Get him talking long enough and what seems like genuine estrangement from both contemporary politics and his own party start to show through. He speaks of frustration with partisan battles, Republican versus Democrat.

“Those are instruments to help us make better decisions. They are not entities in themselves that are worthy of the protection that we seem to want to provide them,” Mead said in a September interview. “I want to know, is it good for the country? Is it good for Wyoming?”


“(This) sort of approach in Washington is not going to bode well for Wyoming,” — Jennifer Jensen, author of “The Governors’ Lobbyists: Federal-State Relations Offices and Governors Associations in Washington”

But for governors, successfully playing D.C. politics takes more than caring about a state or the nation. It’s often a tricky dance, and perhaps even more so under the current administration.

Jennifer Jensen, a political science professor and author of “The Governors’ Lobbyists,” said governors are most effective when they can argue that a cause has bipartisan support and states are better at handling a given issue than Washington.

But that requires flexibility on the part of administration officials, something Jensen said has not been apparent under Trump. A carefully-negotiated issue like the sage grouse plans, which included input from a broad coalition as well as scientific study, is unlikely to find a sympathetic hearing.

“It hits up against the president — who thinks, ‘OK, I’m going to have the Secretary of Interior do X’,” Jensen said. “That sort of approach in Washington is not going to bode well for Wyoming.”

Wyoming is also disadvantaged by not having an established lobbying presence in Washington. Jensen said that roughly half of all states have employees based in the nation’s capital or a standing relationship with a lobbyist based there. Washington is a city of relationships and Jensen said it’s difficult to be heard if you don’t know who to talk to or what to say.

Mead, for his part, got Zinke’s ear on sage grouse once, at a semi-public Montana event in June where the secretary was speaking to a group of governors. Since then he’s spoken with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and thinks Bernhardt gets it.

Hendrix College political science professor Jay Barth, who has studied how governors can influence policy, said Mead may have a shot at prevailing in the sage grouse fight. It certainly helps that he’s a Republican working with a Republican administration. And, Barth said, Wyoming has a strong claim to leadership on sage grouse.

But when it comes to Mead’s particular ability to sway federal policy, there’s some bad news.

Barth conducted a study on how the personality of governors across the country corresponded to their effectiveness.

“The two traits that really matter in a positive way are higher levels of desire for achievement and higher levels of desire for power in a traditional sense,” Barth said.

While Mead seems focused on achievement, the business of governance, he hasn’t shown much interest in hardball politics. Barth said that governors who used their public platform to talk about cooperation and unity were generally less effective. When Mead spoke about sage grouse policy at an energy conference in Colorado last Tuesday, he focused precisely on the importance of cooperation.

“If we go down a different road now with the sage grouse, what it says is, when you try to address other endangered species problems in this country, don’t have a collaborative process, don’t work together, because it’s going to be changed,” Mead said. “To me, that would be a very unfortunate circumstance.”


“I do remain convinced that Wyoming’s voice is and should remain strong in this discussion, and we’ll continue to make that the case,” — Matt Mead, Wyoming governor

Mead has faced off with the federal government over sage grouse before, and the former lawyer has an impressive history of suing the Obama-administration on a variety of issues.

It’s a pattern he admits isn’t the best way to develop policy, but regardless of who is in the White House, the governor says his role is to protect Wyoming.

“If we have disagreements with the federal government on an issue that I believe is harmful to our state, I will challenge that in any way that I can,” he said.

Ulrich, from Jonah Energy doesn’t expect a battle this time. But Rutledge, of the Audubon, and a fellow member of the sage grouse team, is rolling up his sleeves.

Both men from either ends of the political spectrum say Mead has a loyal following that will rally around him if things get tough.

“We’ll take the hits with him,” Rutledge said. “I don’t think there is anybody here that won’t walk into the fight with him.”


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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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