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Sage Grouse

Male sage grouse strut in hopes of attracting a mate April 17 on a lek in southern Natrona County. A project now under consideration would bring 5,000 wells to key sage grouse habitat in Converse County.

In the west a handshake means something. Even when it’s hard to come by, we honor it. Westerners have been looking back east and shaking our heads at the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., for some time now. When the gridlock got to be too much and the cost of not solving a problem looked to be too high for Western states, we took action. We set aside our differences and got to work.

About eight years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the iconic sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. Adding the bird to the endangered species list is something most Westerners didn’t want. If that listing happened, it would have affected every user of our national public lands, whether they knew it or not. Stakeholders from all across the spectrum including hunters, ranchers, local and state governments, industry and outdoor businesses, came to the table to hammer out a plan to conserve the sage grouse and sagebrush habitat while allowing ranching, drilling, hunting and other activities to continue.

Not everyone loved the deal, but that’s the nature of compromise—you need to give up something to get something, all the while stepping back to look at the big picture. The big picture in our case was our Western way of life and the values we hold dear. It was responsible stewardship of our public lands that allowed for energy development while also taking into account the importance of wildlife and wildlife habitat. The sage grouse plans also benefit hundreds of other species, including elk, mule deer and pronghorn that depend on sage-brush steppe for crucial winter range.

Now that the winds have shifted in D.C. and we have new leadership at the Interior Department, a bunch of folks who weren’t involved in the hard work of coming up with the deal want to revisit it. After we toiled to strike a deal and tried to establish balance across the landscape, Interior is putting its thumb on the scale for industry. You need look no further than their stated policy of “energy dominance” through drilling and mining our public lands and forests. “Dominance” leaves little room for compromise.

We were on a path forward for sage grouse and all other creatures out here, while continuing hunting, grazing and drilling on sagebrush lands. It wasn’t an easy path and we knew from the beginning there would be bumps ahead, but we were moving. Now, we’re not moving anymore. The heavy hand of big government is blocking the path forward. They are ruffling feathers across the political spectrum with those that worked hard on this deal. When it comes down to it, our ask is simple and reasonable: We want Secretary Zinke to honor the deal that Interior made with Western states. Give the plans a chance to work. If we hit bumps in the road as we move forward we can always come back to the table and get to work again. That’s how we do things in the West.

Walt Gasson is a 42-year veteran of wildlife conservation in Wyoming. He lives in Laramie.

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