Tom Christiansen uses a spotting scope to count strutting greater sage grouse at a lek in southwest Wyoming in 2015. The former Wyoming Game and Fish sage grouse coordinator contributes to an annual count on 1,000 breeding sites around the state that keeps track of the population's trend. (Angus. M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Dear Governor Gordon,

First, congratulations on your election. I’m confident you’ll serve the state well.

Listening to your inaugural address I was pleased to hear you mention invasive plants and then to back up the oratory with your supplemental budget request to help address the need. You correctly acknowledged the threats that agriculture, wildlife and local communities face, not only from the weeds themselves, but from the wildfires often associated with exotic annual grasses. In your request for legislative appropriations, you were spot on writing, “This threat is not new, but it is accelerating.”

Before retiring as the Game and Fish Department’s sage grouse program coordinator last fall, I represented Wyoming on the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Wildfire and Invasive Species Working Group. The products of this working group have been shared with state and federal agencies as well as members of Congress and the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture in past and current administrations.

The results on the ground have the potential to be meaningful, though certainly not yet enough to eliminate the threat. We must have support from all levels of government and the private sector to be successful. Without this support, we will certainly fail, resulting in altered landscapes detrimental to native wildlife, local communities, industry and the nation as a whole.

I offer my service to the state’s effort should that be deemed useful.

My original intent was for this letter to end here. Recent events, however, require additional attention.

In mid-February I received a call from a reporter asking for my comment on the topic of the BLM oil and gas lease sales northeast of Farson between Wyoming Highway 28 and U.S. 191.

Because the lease sales coincided with my retirement I was not aware that the leases being offered overlapped the best sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming and the West. I deferred the reporter’s question until I could better research the issue. That research led me conclude the potential leases were of great concern.

Because of the relatively pristine nature of the landscape and, not coincidentally, its importance to many wildlife species, the area has become known locally as the “Golden Triangle”. A thousand elk spend the winter here, as do thousands of mule deer and pronghorn. As you know, the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration route crosses the area as well.

Of interest to those invested in the fate of greater sage-grouse is the fact that the area supports the highest density of sage-grouse on Earth. One of the leks in the area is one of only three in Wyoming that has exceeded a count of 300 males in recent years. Several nearby leks routinely support counts of over 100 males in peak years. Compare these numbers to the average lek count in Wyoming of 20-35 males.

The “Golden Triangle” holds historical significance to both human settlement and sage grouse conservation in the West. The Oregon, Mormon and California Trails share a common route parallel to what is now Wyoming Highway 28. And because the Farson area had more sage-grouse than anywhere in Wyoming 70 years ago, Robert Patterson chose this area as the site for his seminal research, the investigations that resulted in “The Sage Grouse in Wyoming”, a book sage-grouse managers across the West still consider the bible when it comes to the ecology of the species.

More recent research has concluded this landscape is one most likely to remain in sagebrush habitat in the West as climate change brings pressure to bear on sagebrush systems elsewhere.

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These concerns led to the letter you recently received from conservationists asking that you request the BLM defer the parcels in this area from the February and March lease sales. Certainly the timing of the request was problematic relative to the formal comment period and the pending lease sales. I also understand leasing in and of itself is not inconsistent with the current Sage-Grouse Executive Order. However, this landscape is critical to greater sage-grouse and the unparalleled efforts to prevent the need to list the species as threatened or endangered. Some places simply demand unusual consideration, even under the most effective policies. This is one.   

Please understand that I support the whole of the Executive Order and its provisions. The policy far exceeds the ineffective development stipulations in place prior to 2008. That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Oil and gas development in areas with the densities of birds present in the “Golden Triangle,” even with core area stipulations applied, will have proportionally greater impacts than in core areas supporting lower densities. That fact needs to be better considered now and into the future. I certainly support your call to the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, local sage-grouse working groups, and others to assist in updating the policy in the coming months.

Respectfully yours,

Tom Christiansen

Sage-Grouse Program Coordinator (retired)

Wyoming Game and Fish Department

cc:

Dr. Pat Arp

Chief of Staff for Governor Gordon

Bob Budd

Executive Director, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust

Brian Nesvik

Director, Wyoming Game and Fish Department

Mary Jo Rugwell

State Director, Wyoming Bureau of Land Management

Tom Christiansen

Tom Christiansen served as a Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist for 33 years, including a 15-year stint as the head of the agency's sage grouse program prior to his retirement in 2018.

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