Wyoming stakeholders nudge feds in opposing directions on sage grouse conservation plan

As home to about 38% of the planet's remaining greater sage grouse - far more than any other state or province - and the architect of key conservation measures, Wyoming has a lot to gain or lose from upcoming changes to the complex, multi-agency matrix of rules and regulations governing management of the imperiled bird and its habitat. 

Those stakes were top of mind Wednesday evening for Natrona County rancher Doug Cooper and others who attended a BLM information session on the agency's recently released draft management plan for sage grouse habitat. 

"When you say 'conservation,' it sounds wonderful," Cooper said. "But I'm not sure 'conservation' is going to mean just that when we get down on the ground."

Similar questions bubbled up for the dozen residents trying to make sense of the latest developments in what has been a whipsaw of approaches between Republican and Democratic administrations. Does the pending plan account for sage grouse predation from ravens and magpies? Is livestock grazing considered a harmful practice that might come under new restrictions in sage grouse habitats? And how might restrictions on federal lands impact grazing and oil and gas development on adjacent private property?

Not only is the bird's future at stake, but it serves as an indicator for 350 other species that rely on a sprawling sage-steppe ecosystem that also supports rural economies in Wyoming and throughout much of the West. If the sage grouse is in peril, so are myriad other species and rural economies, according to proponents. The future of the species and its habitat also has major implications for the oil and gas industry, which frequently targets minerals underlying the sage grouse's habitat in Wyoming. 

The agency is soliciting public comments through June 13 on its draft environmental impact statement. After weighing that input, the BLM will issue a final rule for how it will manage sage grouse habitat in 10 western states, including the species' stronghold in Wyoming.

"It is extremely important to get your guys' feedback and ideas on how this plan can be improved," BLM Wyoming Sage Grouse Coordinator Matt Holloran said.

Holloran, a wildlife biologist who has led myriad sage grouse studies, explained that the draft plan includes several aspects of the agency's 2015 and 2019 plans while incorporating new scientific data and accounting for mounting pressures on the bird's habitat from climate change, invasive plant species and wildfire.

The draft plan includes six alternative approaches, ranging from very stringent conservation measures to no change in current management. The BLM's "preferred" option is Alternative 5, which mostly aligns with Wyoming's own evolving management strategies implemented by executive order under recent governors.

That alignment with state policy has likely contributed to stakeholders across the spectrum in Wyoming expressing cautious, but caveated, optimism since the BLM published the draft plan in March. 

Sage grouse conservation in Wyoming

The BLM manages 18 million surface acres and about 43 million acres of subsurface minerals in Wyoming. Although the agency does not manage wildlife, it does manage wildlife habitats, giving it an outsized influence on the state's bedrock energy, recreation, wildlife and agriculture industries.

When conservation groups in the early 2000s sounded alarms about declining sage grouse populations, state leaders sprung into action fearing economy-endangering federal action, including a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming has earned accolades since for being the first state to voluntarily take on greater sage grouse protections - both a proactive drive for conservation and in defense of ongoing agriculture and oil and gas development.

In some instances, the state's protections go further than the federal government's, including a maximum 5% disturbance threshold for industrial activity in sage grouse "core areas." So far, Wyoming is the only western state with a disturbance threshold that also takes wildfire impacts into account.

How the 5% calculation is made, however, is important. Some critics have alleged that some core area boundaries are simply made larger to allow for more disturbance.

So far, the BLM management strategies align with Wyoming's, which are prescribed in its sage grouse core areas plan and overseen by the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team.

Following Wyoming's lead, the BLM proposes to maintain livestock grazing within core areas - mostly considered an insignificant impact and, in some cases, beneficial to sage grouse, according to state and federal documents. Although the BLM's preferred alternative doesn't include major changes to grazing, it does further define poor grazing practices that would be restricted in sage grouse management areas, according to local BLM officials.

Stakeholder responses

Oil and gas industry officials in Wyoming have tentatively expressed hope for a workable federal approach to conserving sage grouse and its habitat. Notably, the BLM's preferred alternative does not include new leasing restrictions for oil and gas.

Conservation groups, however, want the BLM to include the use of a special wildlife habitat designation - Areas of Critical Environmental Concern - which would prohibit industrial activities. They point to a 2021 U.S. Geological Survey study that shows sage grouse populations have declined 80% throughout the West since 1965, and that even with recent conservation measures the species' population is still expected to decline.

Responding to a question Wednesday, the BLM's Holloran said the agency takes the species' cyclical population into account. "What you see is those lows keep getting lower and the highs are not as high," he said.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming says it will push back against calls to include stringent habitat designations such as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

"Alternative 5 is the best option presented, but there is still work to be done," PAW Vice President Ryan McConnaughey told WyoFile via email. "We appreciate the BLM's willingness to take a measured approach and will work through the comment process to share our concerns."

Reached for comment, Gov. Mark Gordon's office referred to earlier statements regarding the BLM's draft plan.

"While more analysis of this is needed," Gordon said in March, "the first pass shows the BLM picked a preferred alternative that will allow for detailed comments that specifically [address] Wyoming's  concerns, including that the preferred alternative does not propose Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) on top of our state identified core areas."

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

 

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