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Interior Department | Sage Grouse Management
Critics concerned over possible overhaul of sage grouse protections, others say changes will be minor

The Interior Department’s decision to make potentially broad changes to federal protections for sage grouse shook Wyoming on Thursday, the energy rich state that built the foundation of sage grouse management in the west.

Interior is seeking public input on some of the staples of federal plans that precluded sage grouse from an Endangered Species Listing two years ago, including caps on the amount of land use activities that can take place near important breeding and nesting grounds and the boundaries that surround crucial habitat. The announcement kicks off a 45-day comment period.

It’s a blow to environmental advocates, who say the bird has already lost significant portions of its habitat, about 75 percent, to allow for varying degrees of development. But it’s an opportunity for others, ready for a chance to amend provisions that limit either grazing or energy development.

Wyoming is considered key to the bird’s survival, and has emerged as a leader in sage grouse conservation over the last decade. It is largely responsible for the strategy mimicked by the feds, which entails identifying crucial habitats and surrounding them with the best protections. After years of wrangling, Wyoming ranchers, oil and gas companies and environmental advocates paired with state and federal agencies on the state’s management team to build the Wyoming plans.

The state has been a leader, intent on protecting its energy economy and preserving sage brush habitat. As such, it has the most to lose if the plans fail.

Advising caution

Today’s suggested changes to federal management plans were expected, but diverse leaders in Wyoming, including Gov. Matt Mead, have spent the last few months cautioning against aggressive updates.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the sage grouse strategies had stoked “anger,” and needed to include more western voices. He has also made it clear he wants to open more lands to oil and gas development and initiated a 60-day review of the plans earlier this year.

Mead repeated his earlier admonishment to the feds in a statement Thursday, noting that it was state and federal plans that kept the bird from being listed as an Endangered Species.

“As BLM looks to make changes to its federal plans, I would encourage the agency to find ways to better align with Wyoming’s state plan,” he said. “There are positive changes that can be made to the federal plans, but we should be careful and thoughtful about how we do that.”

Many environmental groups in Wyoming have criticized Zinke’s comments as uninformed and voiced outrage Thursday. Middle of the road environmental groups, say changes should be minor, not wholesale.

For Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy advisor for the Audubon Society, the Interior’s narrative of state cooperation’s and fairness to energy development is a false flag. Concessions to energy have already been made, he said.

“The compromise wasn’t because we wanted less land for the bird,” Rutledge said. “We were trying to make room for humans, and human expression at the same time. It was frankly a compromise loaded to the human side.”

There are groups in Wyoming that say the federal sage grouse plans did not do enough to protect the grouse from further declines. For them, the Interior’s direction “plays chicken with extinction.”

“The Department of Interior is now abandoning all pretense of protecting sage-grouse in a stampede to ramp up commercial exploitation of public lands,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds, the group that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 forcing a decision on listing the grouse before its numbers declined further.

Room for change

One of the hallmarks of Wyoming’s work on the grouse is that it brought diverse interests to the table. After Thursday’s announcement, some remained positive that federal updates were necessary.

Jim Magagna, of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said he understood the fears from environmental groups, but said that no one in the grazing world wants to go too far in unraveling the plans. Those who want wholesale changes that would damage Wyoming’s efforts over the years are probably in the minority, he said.

There are, however, a few issues that should be clarified or adjusted for ranchers in the federal plans which went farther than Wyoming’s, he said.

At the end of the day, Wyoming’s conservation efforts will remain in place regardless of the federal changes, he said.

Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, said the plans were built on exaggerations of industry’s impact on the bird and ignored the way new technology has reduced the footprint of oil and gas drilling on the landscape.

“The plans discouraged on-the-ground, local conservation efforts and ignored state plans, except for Wyoming’s, in favor of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” said President Kathleen Sgamma, in a statement Thursday.

Sgamma’s organization, based in Colorado, was not one of the industry partners that developed Wyoming’s approach to management, but has been vocal in its support of changes to the federal plans in recent months.

The nod to Wyoming’s sole influence is not insignificant. While Wyoming shot forward to protect its energy economy from the fallout of an ESA listing, other states were less influential on the federal plans.

Rep. Ron Bishop, R-Utah, has repeatedly advocated for changes. Speaking to another BLM decision Thursday — withdrawing a proposal that would have restricted hard rock mining on 10 million acres of the sage brush ecosystem for up to 20 years — Bishop applauded Zinke’s efforts.

“States have proven to be more than capable of managing wildlife and conservation within their borders and will continue to be the best advocate for the species,” he said of sage grouse protections. “Secretary Zinke is developing a better policy through input from states and people on the ground with local knowledge and expertise.”

The cry for state leadership strikes some in Wyoming as odd, given that the state was so involved in sage grouse management up to this point.

Mary Throne, a Democrat running for governor in the state, pointed out that the plans were Wyoming-grown.

“I don’t know why D.C. has to come in and tell us to go back to the drawing board,” she said Thursday. “Sometimes the state-driven decisions that are tailored to your specific circumstances are better.”

Differing views

Many who are closely involved with sage grouse management in Wyoming have said the plans to protect the bird should be continually reviewed to ensure that the strategies are working. Industry groups, included those involved in developing Wyoming’s plans, have said the feds took things too far.

For Rutledge, an influential voice in Wyoming’s sage grouse debate, the hope now is that there are moderate industry voices that stand up for the plans. At the end of the day, the Western governors particularly from Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada, are needed to keep the plans from falling apart in the Interior Department’s hands, he said.

“We already gave up nearly 70 percent of the habitat,” Rutledge said. “What else can we give up and (still) hang on to any of these species.”

Arno Rosenfeld contributed to this report.

Hogadon Ski Area | Alcohol Sales
Casper City Council discusses risks of allowing alcohol sales at Hogadon Ski Area

Changes to state liquor laws prompted the Casper City Council this week to discuss the risks of allowing alcohol sales at Hogadon Ski Area.

The city-run ski lodge does not currently possess a liquor license, said City Councilman Dallas Laird. But a change to state law could make it easier for ski resorts to obtain one.

Ski resort facilities in Wyoming no longer need to offer lodging to be eligible for a resort liquor license.

State law previously mandated that resort liquor licenses could only be issued to resorts that offered lodging, a convention space and restaurant, and could show proof they had invested at least $1 million in their facility, said Casper’s Assistant Support Services Director Pete Meyers.

But a recent legislative change means there are now two ways to qualify for the license.

Under state law, ski resorts aren’t required to offer lodging for a license, provided they can show proof of having invested at least $10 million into their facility, according to Meyers.

Being eligible for a resort liquor licenses can be advantageous for a business, he said. Bar and grill licenses require that at least 60 percent of the business’s profits be obtained from food sales, and competition to receive a full retail liquor licenses tends to be tight, Meyers explained.

“Resort liquor license are more flexible,” he said.

To keep city ordinances in line with state law, Casper City Council passed a motion to amend the requirements needed to receive resort liquor licences at its Tuesday night meeting.

Under the new requirements, the city-owned lodge at Hogadon Ski Area—which does not offer hotel accommodations—will now be eligible for a resort liquor license.

This led to the discussion among Council members regarding the dangers of serving alcohol at the top of Casper Mountain, given that the roadway back to town can be especially treacherous in the winter.

Councilman Charlie Powell said the possibly of people drinking too much and then driving down icy roads is a “legitimate worry,” and the rest of Council appeared to agree.

If alcohol is served at the resort, Powell suggested the Council should explore options to help patrons control their alcohol consumption, such as placing breathalyzers at the facility.

At a previous Council meeting last summer, Councilman Jesse Morgan also suggested placing breathalyzers at establishments that serve alcohol to assist patrons gauge their intoxication levels.

Even if the city encouraged people to make responsible choices, Laird pointed out Tuesday that some people would still end up driving home drunk.

Council members ultimately decided to postpone their conversation about alcohol consumption at Hogadon at a later date.

Alcohol has been a common topic at recent City Council meetings.

In an effort to convey that drunk driving is a serious offence, Council members moved to keep the city’s alcohol-court open at a recent work session.

The alcohol court, which is a part of the municipal court, was established in December 2012 to ensure that those convicted of driving under the influence receive consistently strict punishments, closely supervised probation and counseling services to prevent them from re-offending.

Jessica Morse  

John Jancik, left, Joe Sears, and Steve Gardiner, kneeling, celebrate on the summit of Kebnekaise, the highest mountain in Sweden, on July 2, 2011. The mountain peak was one of Gardiner’s favorite highpoints. Gardiner started climbing while on Devils Tower while living in Gillette.

Cheney backs 'fetal pain' abortion ban in Congress

Most late-term abortions would be outlawed under legislation shepherded through the House on Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming. The bill, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks, is a major priority of the GOP and conservative groups. It faces certain Senate defeat.

The House approved the measure by a near party-line 237-189 vote. Cheney, Wyoming’s lone representative in the House, helped oversee debate on the bill in her capacity as a member of the powerful House Rules Committee.

The bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks, arguing that is the point at which fetuses become capable of feeling pain.

“Extensive scientific evidence has made clear babies at 20 weeks of age can feel pain and survive outside the womb,” Cheney spokeswoman Maddy Weast said in an email. “We have a much better scientific understanding regarding this important issue than we did at the time Roe vs. Wade was passed and it’s our moral obligation to do everything possible to protect the sanctity of human life.”

Weast said Cheney was honored to manage the floor debate on the rule necessary for the bill to pass.

Critics dissent

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said fetuses cannot experience pain before at least 24 weeks of development. In an interview with The Associated Press, the group’s chief executive officer, Hal Lawrence, said “overwhelming” evidence shows fetuses younger than that have reflex activity but lack the neurological development to sense pain.

“They can’t tell what it is,” Lawrence said. “If you can’t interpret it, it can’t hurt.”

The measure would make it a crime for anyone to perform most abortions on fetuses believed to be 20 weeks into development. Violators could face five years in prison, though mothers undergoing such procedures could not be prosecuted.

Exceptions would be made to save the mother’s life and for incest and rapes reported to government authorities.

NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming executive director Sharon Breitweiser said in a statement that her organization did not believe the concept of fetal pain was rooted in established science and noted that the Wyoming Legislature had defeated similar measures in the past.

“(T)he abortion-ban bill supported by Rep. Cheney further stigmatizes legitimate health care providers and sets a dangerous precedent regarding women’s health,” Breitweiser said.

Abortion in Wyoming

The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 but opened the door to some state restrictions. Wyoming requires parental consent for any minor seeking an abortion and bans the use of public funds for abortions except in the case of life endangerment, rape or incest, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that favors abortion rights.

The Legislature passed two additional restrictions last year. One requires doctors to notify women seeking abortion that they may see an ultrasound of the fetus if they wish and another prohibits the use of aborted fetal tissue in scientific research.

Wyoming adopts first new abortion restrictions in 28 years

CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead signed into law Wyoming’s first restrictions on abortion in nearly 30 years Thursday after one of the biggest Republican majorities in the Legislature in state history approved the measures by wide margins.

Despite the relative lack of legal restrictions on abortion, few clinics in Wyoming actually perform abortions and none offer the procedure close to 20 weeks. The only two clinics listed by advocacy group Women For Women Wyoming are in Jackson and do not perform abortions after 12 weeks.

Clinics in neighboring states offer abortions through 21 weeks.

Abortions after 20 weeks are rare. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of over 664,000 reported abortions in 2013, just 1.3 percent occurred at least 21 weeks into development.

While President Donald Trump was prepared to sign the bill, Democratic opposition means the measure will never reach the 60 votes in the Senate that it would need to pass. Republicans have a 52-48 Senate majority.

The Democratic-controlled Senate didn’t consider a similar bill the House approved in 2013. A House-passed measure in 2015 fell short in a GOP-run Senate.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.