Sage grouse conservation in Wyoming has been called a success story. The conservation plans created in 2015 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) not listing the sage grouse on the Endangered Species List and created one of the largest, most successful collaborative conservation efforts in United States history. Federal land managers and states came together to showcase how working together, diligence and commitment can lead to local solutions that conserve sage grouse, sage grouse habitat and keep the species from being listed as endangered, all while meeting states’ needs.
Over the past two years the BLM upended years of work by diverse stakeholders and recently amended management criteria to the greater sage grouse conservation plans. Stakeholders were shocked to learn about BLM’s decision to go back on their word and not honor the years of work that contributed to the success of a true collaborative effort.
In Wyoming, changes in the BLM management plans mean changes to sage grouse habitat. Here are two of the most glaring recommendations by the BLM.
First, no longer requiring oil and gas companies to prioritize leasing and development outside of sage-grouse habitat.
Second, relaxing existing protections allowing companies to obtain waivers, exceptions or modifications to no-surface occupancy management.
Wyoming works to balance world-class wildlife and world-class fossil fuel economies. Technological advances aid in this effort, as do responsible management prescriptions for development and wildlife conservation. The latest BLM plan for greater sage grouse management tips that scale, removing the certainty of long-term survivability of the bird and land management practices that conserve sage grouse habitat.
The easiest way to avoid habitat fragmentation is to simply lease and develop oil and gas outside of priority sage grouse habitat. Legally, when a lease is sold, the buyer must have intent to develop that lease. With the increased leasing in 2018 and over 1.2 million acres of sage grouse habitat slated for oil and gas leasing in the first two lease sales of 2019, the potential for a large amount of development activity is likely. Even with the Cowboy State’s executive order, core sage grouse habitat could easily see the 5% habitat disturbance threshold. Avoiding errors and chances for loss of sage grouse means prioritizing leasing outside of important habitat.
The final changed recommendation is the loosening of protections on lands that have no surface occupancy management. This style of management allows for development of the oil and gas resources but doesn’t negatively impact the surface. If exceptions, waivers and modifications are easier to obtain, more habitat will be adversely impacted and more grouse will have a difficult time surviving. Although technological advances have allowed for directional drilling, which does help conserve other resources, those advances will be diminished if the surface is occupied and disturbed.
The BLM’s greater sage grouse management changes are not based on the premise of “wise use” but rather on an unbalanced approach to multiple-use. What the BLM is proposing goes against the recent poll that shows 58% of Wyoming voters said they wanted to keep the greater sage grouse 2015 plans in place. This poll was in partnership with Wyoming Wildlife Federation and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and illustrates the success of the 2015 sage grouse plans in Wyoming and for Wyoming.
People want balance in Wyoming. Governor Mead knew this and fought for it on behalf of sage grouse conservation and responsible development. We are looking forward to working with Governor Gordon to ensure a balanced sage grouse conservation plan continues to be the Wyoming way.