By Emilene Ostlind

LARAMIE – Wyoming’s greatly-used, little-appreciated sagebrush ecosystem and one of Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s most elaborate initiatives are rapidly approaching a critical milestone.

At the end of the week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to move towards listing the Greater Sage-grouse as an endangered species.

Wyoming’s minerals extraction and ranching industries and the governor’s office are awaiting the decision, due out early next week. They’ve worked together to craft a strategy to avoid listing the Sage-grouse as endangered.

Sage-grouse and its sagebrush habitat are widespread in Wyoming. This habitat has become fragmented as development has proceeded across the state, causing grouse numbers to dwindle. A federal endangered species listing, with its accompanying ban on disturbing the bird and its ecosystem, could force the cut back or closure of operations on ranches, mines, and oil and gas fields all over the state.

The governor’s strategy has produced efforts to help the bird, and allow industry amidst the sagebrush to continue. Those efforts have been hailed as unique in the nation. But whether those efforts have been enough – particularly when one initiative was dramatically cut back in scope last fall – will be up to the federal wildlife experts.

Aaron Clark, energy infrastructure advisor to Gov. Freudenthal, expressed anxiety over the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision when he spoke at the governor’s Wind Symposium last autumn.

“The thing that scares us to death,” he said, “is that from a gas production standpoint, 83 percent of the total gas production in the state of Wyoming would be subject to additional regulatory review with a full statewide listing of Sage-grouse.”

The decision, due Friday, March 5, to be published in the Federal Register early next week, will determine whether the bird and its habitat should receive the protection against destruction and disruption that is provided to “listed” species under the federal Endangered Species Act. An initial pro-listing decision would begin a year-plus process before the bird would be officially listed and protected.

With its decision, the federal agency could also affect both the ranching and minerals extraction industries.

“I need to get clear on the record, it isn’t some obsession that I have with the Sage-grouse that has led me to where I’m at,” Freudenthal assured his listeners at the Wyoming Wind Symposium on the University of Wyoming campus last August as his staff presented conservation plans. “What I have is an obsession with is making sure that the economy in this state continues to function, which it won’t if we in fact get that bird listed.”

Freudenthal has taken the lead in coming up with plans to stave off a federal listing. In 2007, he organized state employees and the private sector into a team to come up with a plan that would designate as sage-grouse “core areas” packets of land that ranchers, miners, and oil and gas drillers must avoid.

The “core area” designations have critics who see them influenced as much by economics as by science – and not backed with enough legal muscle.

The idea behind the governor’s strategy is essentially to create enough state protection for the Sage-grouse that the federal wildlife officials can comfortably decide that the bird’s future is looking all right, and Sage-grouse should not be listed as endangered.

Meanwhile, a second strategy that might have helped keep the grouse off the endangered species list was scaled back and postponed. This would have involved the creation of a binding agreement that would exempt landowners from further restrictions on their economic activity if they agreed to Sage-grouse conservation measures before listing occurred. The scope of the conservation agreement – once planned to cover the entire state – has been drastically cut back since the governor’s office first announced it with some fanfare last August, and now is set to be rolled out next fall, too late to affect the wildlife service’s decision.

Whether the state’s Sage-grouse strategy will give the bird enough protection to avoid a federal listing is unclear. But even the federal wildlife agency does not list the grouse this year, an unrelated factor may be at work – the agency’s workload. So many other, more vulnerable bird species await listing, the agency may not have the manpower to address the requisite protections for all. So some people in Wyoming are betting that the Sage-grouse listing won’t occur – this time.

The strategy and its promise

Wyoming is home to about half of North America’s Greater Sage-grouse. One of the five factors the wildlife service considers in its decision to list a species as “endangered” is “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.” At present, Wyoming is hustling to develop “adequate” conservation measures in hopes they will preclude the need for federal listing.

Brian Rutledge, Executive Director of Audubon Wyoming and an instrumental player in Sage-grouse policy in Wyoming, believes that Wyoming has “made a lot of the right moves, but we’ve known this bird was in trouble since 1954. Wyoming should take a lot of credit for making the first big moves to protect the bird, but whether or not it’s enough, soon enough is an open question.”

Freudenthal’s “core concept” has received some support at the federal level.

“The governor’s Sage-grouse core area concept is a model for the nation,” said Steve Black, counselor to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and co-chair of the Department of the Interior’s Renewable Energy Task Force, speaking at last fall’s wind symposium. “He’s absolutely correct that that issue puts Wyoming– as he has said before– on sort of the razor’s edge, and that it will affect every aspect of Wyoming’s economy. And that’s true for a lot of western states.”

Bob Budd, Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust and a member of the state’s Sage-grouse implementation team, believes that whatever the decision on March 5, the “core area” plan has helped prepare the state to deal with conservation of the grouse, which will be an ongoing issue.

The core area plan “focuses our effort where we can have the most beneficial influence,” Budd told WyoFile in a telephone interview. “We aren’t running around out there saying, ‘Oh, look, gee, there’s a grouse. Maybe we better do this, maybe we better do that.’ We are actually focused on where they are and where we can have the best influence. Whether they list it or not, the strategy I think is sound.”

Erik Molvar, of Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, agrees that Wyoming’s future conservation relationship with Sage-grouse will continue to develop.

“If we don’t solve the problem of increasing the degradation and destruction of sagebrush habitat, we are going to see the Sage-grouse continue to decline over time,” Molvar told WyoFile. “So there is an incentive to try to do everything that we can to maintain healthy Sage-grouse populations even if a listing decision turns out not to be warranted.”

Emilene Ostlind is communications coordinator for the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, and edits Western Confluence magazine, a publication of the UW Ruckelshaus...

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