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Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse struts in April on a lek in southern Natrona County.

The country’s plan to manage sage grouse populations across the West was a compromise.

Conservation, industry and government representatives worked for years to put together the plans with the ultimate goal of avoiding an Endangered Species Act listing across the bird’s 11-state habitat. They came together collaboratively and with a common objective – two elements that are often sorely lacking in today’s political dialogues.

None of the groups received everything it wanted, so the plan to manage the iconic Western species wasn’t wildly popular with any one side. But it had approval from all stakeholders, which made it a rare and significant success story at the intersection of agriculture and energy development and conservation. It was also an important step to keeping the birds off the list.

Now, however, those plans have come under attack from Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke, a former U.S. representative from Montana, has said he’s heard complaints from some Western governors that these management strategies limit their use of the land for industry. Recently, he set a 60-day window to review the Bureau of Land Management plans. He’d like to use that time to look at other ways of tallying the bird’s population and other factors related to it.

Specifically, Zinke seems to be interested in setting population targets. That tactic would essentially pivot the focus from preserving the grouse’s sagebrush habitat, which conservationists say is required to support healthy populations in the long term, to simply counting the number of birds on the landscape.

Western leaders say the simpler numbers-based approach doesn’t make sense for these plans. It opens doors to unsubstantiated science, such as captive breeding, and flies in the face of the difficult and collaborative work these groups have done to protect the grouse and its habitat.

Wyoming’s leaders, too, are reluctant to support such an approach. Gov. Matt Mead and Sen. John Barrasso, while welcoming the review process itself, have both spoken out against setting population targets. Mead, with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, has written two public letters to Zinke suggesting that the plans just need more time to work. Sage grouse population numbers increase and decline on a cyclical basis, and it’s too soon to list all the effects of the plans.

Certainly, it’s troubling that Zinke appears willing to throw cold water on these landmark management plans after all the work that went into them. Even more distressing is that this is happening in Wyoming, where many voters cast ballots for President Donald Trump as they complained about burdensome federal overreach. Now, one of Trump’s Cabinet members is the source of that overreach.

It’s also hard to identify the potential advantages of Zinke’s actions here. Conservationists want to see the bird and its habitat thrive. Industry wants to develop the land without being hamstrung by an Endangered Species listing, which would be far more likely should protection plans be walked back. The stakes are high here, for all parties, and such an effort should not be undertaken lightly.

In addition, Zinke said the reviews would be done within 60 days. Expediency is valuable, but these plans took experts years to construct. It’s unlikely that Interior will be able to understand that process, much less improve upon it, in such a short time.

The federal government should not waste time wading into these hard-fought sage grouse management strategies. Westerners, including Wyomingites, put a substantial amount of work into these plans, and the federal government should respect them and let them work.

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