A sage grouse amid its namesake habitat. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Citing population declines, climate change, habitat loss and other factors, the Bureau of Land Management will revise Western conservation plans for greater sage grouse, including in Wyoming where about 38% of the birds live on a landscape heavily used by the state’s industries.

The Bureau’s announcement Monday will affect habitat conservation and restoration plans across 10 states, covering 67 million acres the agency manages, according to a notice published in the Federal Register. The review marks another turnaround for the imperiled bird, which has been a policy ping-pong species volleyed between political parties and administrations.

The BLM has found that existing grouse conservation plans “are potentially inconsistent with new science and rapid changes affecting the BLM’s management of the public lands,” the agency said. Those include climate change, drought, loss of habitat, more frequent wildland fires and diminished riparian areas.

The review will affect more than 70 grouse conservation plans through environmental impact statements that will address not only BLM surface acreage but oil, gas and coal reserves the agency administers under private land.

New science and conditions merit revisions to conservation plans adopted in 2015 that were forged to keep the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from officially declaring the imperiled bird threatened or endangered. While there’s no firm estimate of sage grouse numbers across the West, wildlife agencies track trends, which reveal a significant decline over many years, federal scientists say.

The review also will consider “the people who rely on sagebrush lands to support their livelihoods and traditions,” the BLM stated. But stock growers are wary about more restrictive rules in the conservation standards.

The new direction “creates a lot of uneasiness,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Wyoming’s own sage grouse plan, implemented under a gubernatorial order and including local working groups, should satisfy the BLM and not require changes, he said.

‘High time’ for ambitious plan

The BLM’s review will address “sagebrush focal areas,” where conservationists say preventing disturbance to habitat is paramount. The review will consider requiring replacement for lost habitat and no-go buffer areas around breeding-ground leks. Stock grazing, mineral leasing and wild horse and burro management also will come under the microscope along with invasive plant species and wildfires.

BLM’s announcement invigorated conservationists. “It’s high time for an ambitious plan to protect the sage grouse and save the sagebrush sea,” Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. “If the Bureau would just get serious about limiting livestock grazing and industrial use in sage grouse habitat, that would go a long way toward protecting the species.”

Joe Bohne, right and Armond Acri draw lines as Game and Fish mapmaker Nyssa Whitford directs during a meeting of the Jackson area sage grouse committee in 2015. The mapping was part of a successful Wyoming Core-Area Strategy that precluded the federal government in 2015 from listing the bird as threatened or endangered. The effort involved communities across the West. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Conservation will require “significant changes to how commercial enterprises are conducting their activities in sage grouse habitats,” her statement said.

The group, which opposes livestock grazing on public land, found existing conservation plans “riddled with loopholes, [that] failed to protect major proportions of priority habitat,” Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement. Protections are “far lower than what we know sage grouse need to survive based on science,” he said.

The review is “an opportunity to embrace a science-based approach and stop the greater sage grouse’s slow slide toward extinction,” Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Wyoming has its own plan

Wyoming’s sage grouse team leader Bob Budd told WyoFile he has faith in Wyoming’s grouse conservation plans and is confident that they could use, at the most, fine tuning.

“We don’t believe in a wide-open, start-over process,” he said. “I hope we don’t end up going out and casting as wide a net as the [BLM] notice says.”

Wyoming has methods in place to address some of the BLM’s areas of concern, Budd said, including mineral leasing and grazing. For ranchers, he said, it’s unrealistic to require, for example, they leave stubble at a certain height after grazing — about 6 inches — for grouse cover.

Bob Budd at the Sage Grouse Implementation Team meeting in Lander on July 10, 2019. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

“The science says there’s a variability — you don’t just adopt a number and say it’s the magic number,” Budd said.

The state also has a system to make up for lost habitat. “We in Wyoming have established standards from how development will occur to where we avoid, minimize and provide for compensatory mitigation,” Budd said. “Leasing itself is not the issue — it’s how you develop.”

He also cautioned about drawing long-range conclusions on historic population numbers. Wyoming only adopted a rigorous system for estimating grouse numbers in the mid to late 1980s, he said. Today the state surveys hundreds of breeding ground leks annually to help determine population trends, far beyond the “handful of lek counts” used before that time.

“Am I worried? No,” he said. “Am I concerned? Yes.” Concerned about conifer invasion of sagebrush lands, concerned about invasive species and “damn right” concerned about rural subdivisions.

Oil and gas companies see the review as “just another attempt to shut down the industry in Wyoming,” said Ryan McConnaughey, spokesman for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. “The Biden administration is trying everything it can to shut down leasing on federal lands,” he said.

The industry participates in the Sage Grouse Implementation Team and local groups, he said. “Wyoming’s plan is working,” he said, “and any sort of federal mandate that treats all states the same I think is inappropriate.”

Stock growers’ Magagna pointed to three key conservation measures critical to public land grazing interests. One is the separation of Wyoming from other Western states.

“Wyoming was proactive in protecting sage grouse and their habitat,” he said, having instituted the SGIT ahead of federal discussions regarding Endangered Species Act protection, he said. “We would hope [the BLM] would continue that approach.”

Post-grazing stubble height should not come under a West-wide standard, he said. Some areas can’t support cover 6 or 7 inches high “even before grazing,” he said.

Sagebrush focal areas — zones within core habitat that would be off limits to development — also are unnecessary, he said. He wants one designation of critical habitat, Magagna said, not layers.

Safeguards now in place are adequate, he said. But climate change was not a factor that was considered when they were set. It’s emergence as a new element “causes me to be nervous,” he said.The BLM will accept public comments on the scope of topics its review should encompass through Feb. 7, 2022. Comments can be submitted through the agency’s e-planning website.

The name of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming was wrong in the original article and has been corrected — Ed.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I find it very unfortunate that Mr. Budd’s response is inevitably “nothing to see here, Wyoming has a great plan,” and also the fallback position, “remember, we only now are getting real numbers, so anything we thought we knew about population trends doesn’t really count.” If the core area strategy had been rigorously enforced, it might have succeeded. As someone who participated in crafting the core area strategy from the getgo and seeing what has come of it, I have to agree with Mr. Molvar that it has become so riddled with exceptions it no longer has much of a chance to succeed, and the BLM’s “wide net” response might be merited.

  2. The story did not help me figure out the best path forward for Wyoming. Too many conflicting interests to trust what anyone says. This comes on the heels of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team admitting that they vastly undercounted grizzy bears in the GYE. Trust is easily lost.

    One thing is certain, if you like high gas prices then you’re in luck. Despite the slight drop due to economic uncertainty now, they will be heading in one direction (UP) if the Biden administration gets it’s way. If that ticks people off, and it probably will, then republicans will take back congress and the Biden policies will yo-yo back to the drill-baby-drill policies favored by republicans. And, conservationist will once again be painted as an uncaring threat to humans.

    Somewhere, a path to the future will be blazed. When the political winds blow, you know the path won’t be a straight one. And it might not be the right one. That is all I know after reading this.

  3. I would like to know if the wind energy is required to jump through the same hoops as the the oil and gas , as far as permits. A wind farm disturbs a much larger area then one drilling rig does!

  4. One underused technique for helping sage grouse is the use of diverters on fences in the most productive sage grouse areas. Fence collisions with these low flying birds can cause significant mortality. Use of these small metal reflective spinners greatly reduces that mortality.

  5. Great article! Note that “compensatory mitigation” argument now being used to resist changes has been widely proven in many contexts to be a failure–the so-called “compensatory” areas are not equivalent to those being destroyed & monitoring of these areas to see if they are being kept as promised rarely take place.

  6. Wyoming is working hard at exterminating more native species and will undoubtedly succeed. Meanwhile Game and Fish continues to list such species as the Jackrabbit and Porcupine as “predators” which can be killed 365 days a year by any method whatsoever. Land of the natural born killers.