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On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service released a final environmental impact statement evaluating the changes proposed to the 2015 greater sage grouse management plans. If adopted, the changes proposed to the plans will imperil this iconic western bird and other wild game that depend upon undisturbed sagebrush habitat. The changes will have devastating, long-term consequences to Wyoming’s economy and allow for the destruction of the wide open sagebrush spaces cherished by citizens of Wyoming. The changes envisioned, coupled with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s actions to weaken the Interior Department’s sage grouse conservation plans, will set the sage grouse on an almost certain path to a listing under the Endangered Species Act and must be rejected.

The residents of Albany County and Wyoming have much to lose with the changes proposed to the management plans. Local plans were created and agreed upon by the citizens of Western states to stop the greater sage grouse population’s decades-long decline and led to an inter-state conservation plan to save the bird in 2015. The result – while not perfect – was a groundbreaking plan that sought to save the grouse and prevent its listing under the Endangered Species Act. Hunting and fishing enthusiasts, outdoor recreationists, ranchers, conservationists and energy development organizations worked diligently to save the most critical places for the sage grouse while allowing reasonable development and economic activity on less sensitive areas. Arguably, the locally derived conservation plan has helped to arrest the bird’s steep decline, and each state’s individualized plan was the result of thousands of hours of local stakeholder work.

Shockingly, one of the most vital parts of the 2015 plan, which prioritized leasing and development away from the most critical habitat areas, has been removed by the Forest Service and the Interior Department in the agencies’ proposed changes. Moreover, all states except for Montana and Oregon have eliminated Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFA), which provided an extra measure of protection to reduce habitat fragmentation. Without SFAs, there is no guaranteed way to protect large areas of undisturbed sagebrush land from unnecessary leasing and reckless development. And while the focus of the 2015 conservation plan centered on the greater sage grouse, the plan also protected mule deer, antelope, elk and the 350 wildlife species that rely on undisturbed sagebrush habitat. It is well known that the development of habitat is devastating to wild game populations, and these same populations have helped develop an outdoor recreation economy that generates an annual $1 billion across the West.

More than any other Western state, Wyoming has the most to lose should these misguided changes be implemented. The economic future of our state is inextricably tied to the future of the sage grouse. Wyoming holds the highest percentage of the grouse’s sustaining sagebrush lands (43 million acres) and is home to 37 percent of the West’s entire greater sage grouse population. As such, it’s no surprise that Wyoming has led efforts to protect sage grouse and its habitat. It is critical that Gov. Mark Gordon continues reaffirming Wyoming’s commitment to protecting sage grouse without the backstop of federal plans. The importance of sound conservation policies in Wyoming simply cannot be overstated. When grouse numbers begin to decline should these proposed policies be implemented, the impact of an endangered species listing to Wyoming’s economy will be devastating and felt throughout the state.

I understand the importance of reasonable economic development, but I am also aware of the need to protect our wild species and public lands. The changes proposed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department to the 2015 conservation plan are neither reasonable nor in the public interest. They will be destructive to the sage grouse, our wild game populations and the habitat they rely upon. When the sage grouse receives endangered species protection, as it most certainly will if these proposed changes are adopted, Wyoming’s economy will suffer. As a lifelong resident of Wyoming, I cannot stand behind reckless and unnecessary changes that put our iconic species, wild spaces and economy on the path to destruction. Our people, wildlife and public lands deserve better.

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Pete Gosar is an Albany County commissioner and a contributor to Western Leaders Voices, a program of Western Leaders Network that helps amplify the voices of local and tribal elected leaders on conservation issues in the West.

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