Sage-grouse Core Areas
In 2007, Gov. Freudenthal created a Sage-grouse conservation implementation team of 14 citizens from energy, wildlife, conservation, agriculture, and other areas, to develop a plan to avoid federal listing of the grouse. The team identified what it called “Sage-grouse core areas,” where conservation efforts might best benefit the species. A map of the core areas shows blue blobs covering about one quarter of Wyoming, mostly in basins scattered diagonally from southwest to northeast.
“To put it simply, it’s where the Sage-grouse are,” implementation team member Budd said. “We know that from lek data that’s been collected for years by Game and Fish, by energy companies, by independent biologists, and others. Using that we were able to find the areas that have the highest density of birds.”
Business interests also played a part. Leks—critical breeding grounds where male sage-grouse put on an elaborate courting display to attract females—in oil and gas development areas were largely excluded from what the state calls “core areas.”
“The Sage-grouse implementation team did a very good job in carving the core areas out, away from the oil and gas wells that are around the state,” Aaron Clark said.
While 83 percent of natural gas development is in Sage-grouse habitat, only 2 percent is included in the implementation team’s core areas. Eight-seven percent of coal is in the Sage-grouse’s range, only 4 percent is labeled “core.”
John Emmerich, Deputy Director of Wyoming Game and Fish, explained the reasoning behind the “carving out.”
“We had high densities of Sage-grouse there in the late ’90s and the early 2000s, but that’s about the same time real intensive development kicked off in these areas,” he said, pointing to a map of “core areas” skirting Wyoming’s busiest natural gas fields. “And we have been documenting some pretty significant declines.”
Because Sage-grouse are not expected to continue to occupy those areas for the next several decades while natural gas extraction continues. To make up for this loss, other pieces of Sage-grouse habitat– with lower bird densities—were designated as “core” instead.
Implementing the core area concept is a question of the limits of state regulatory power. According to Pat Deibert from the Wyoming Ecological Services Office, the conservation rules for the core areas are “not truly regulatory at this point, but they’re going that direction.”
Game and Fish published recommendations for Sage-grouse management in Wyoming, but state agencies can apply their recommendations only on state-owned land. State-owned sage-grouse “core areas” make up about 330,000 acres — or 1 percent– out of the 32 million acres of sagebrush in the state. The state’s recommendations include limiting oil and gas development to one well-pad per square mile; putting transmission lines at least half a mile from active Sage-grouse leks; and generally maintaining a six-tenths of a mile buffer between development and occupied Sage-grouse habitat.
“That’s not a big enough buffer, according to the science,” said Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “The science says if there is a producing gas well pad within 1.9 miles of the lek, there is going to be a decline and that decline is going to be significant. … That’s from producing wells. The distance for drilling is three miles.”
The governor issued an Executive Order in August of 2008 requiring all state agencies to protect Sage-grouse within the core areas, but also incentivizing development outside of core areas. The Executive Order is to be enacted the same as a law passed by the legislature, but the language of the document allows for flexibility.
The federal Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming has adopted as its policy the state Game and Fish recommendations, the implementation team recommendations, and the governor’s Executive Order. An Instructional Memorandum the Bureau issued last December recommends deferral of mineral leasing in certain Sage-grouse core areas. Leasing on land will be deferred if it is in a core area and within suitable sage-grouse habitat on a “parcel [that is] a part of at least eleven square miles of contiguous, manageable, unleased Federal minerals.”
In May 2008 the federal wildlife service wrote to the governor’s office that the “core population area strategy, as outlined in the Implementation Team’s correspondence to the governor, is a sound framework for a policy by which to conserve greater sage-grouse in Wyoming,” giving the state hope that the plan will keep the Sage-grouse from being listed.
However, Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming points out that the core areas are “only protected right now by an Instructional Memorandum and an Executive Order, not by legal stipulation.
“So we’re going to have to seek more stringent protections for [the Service] to consider it too very heavily. [The core areas] are certainly positives in the consideration. Whether or not they’re enough is an open question,” he said.
Molvar of Biodiversity Conservation Alliance thinks an endangered species listing might help the core area plan work, as it might not otherwise.
“There’s so much discretion, and so much latitude for judgment calls, for the way [conservation measures are] implemented,” he said. “It’s going to be that judgment of the implementing managers that determines how effective this core area strategy really is. And that is a huge amount of trust to be handing off to a group of folks, who– let’s face it– historically have presided over the decline of the Sage-grouse. … The genius of an endangered species listing is that it is probably the one thing out there that could compel the core area model to work in a way that is biologically effective for Sage-grouse.”
The state has also been creating Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances as another way to protect Sage-grouse.
These are agreements between the Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners, wherein the landowners agree to act in the near term to protect candidate species and its habitat on private land, regardless of whether the species is listed as endangered. In exchange, the landowner receives an assurance from the federal wildlife service that if the species is listed, the landowner is exempt from any further regulation.
“Developing the [conservation agreement] is like making an endangered species listing in reverse,” said Scott Covington of federal service’s Energy Program in the Wyoming Ecological Services office. “We’re trying to preclude the need to list. We have to develop conservation measures to reduce the threats to the Sage-grouse.”
Landowners can develop their own individual agreements with the wildlife service, which is how most of the nation’s conservation agreements have been done in the past.
Wyoming, however, over a year ago floated the idea of developing a sweeping, statewide, programmatic conservation agreement for Sage-grouse, which would have given landowners in all kinds of industries the chance to sign on. This has never been done before. Putting it together seemed to require the expertise of someone who had worked widely with the Endangered Species Act before, so the governor’s office contracted with an outside consultant, Tom Blickensderfer, to develop the proposal.
That plan was announced last August at the governor’s Wyoming Wind Symposium, where Blickensderfer described the statewide conservation agreement project in some detail, indicating that the text of the agreement was nearly ready to send to the wildlife service.
Since then, however, Blickensderfer has left the employ of the governor’s office, which has scaled the concept back to create conservation agreements Specific only to ranch management, and the work has been done in-house, by the governor’s staff.
A team of representatives from the federal wildlife service and land management bureau, the state game and fish department, and the ranching community, specifically from conservation districts, have been working together to draft this new, broad conservation agreement for the state, which would outline conservation measures ranchland managers can take to protect grouse and grouse habitat on their property.
If a statewide agreement for ranchlands can be put together, each player could benefit. The wildlife service would get voluntary species protection on private land; the state could streamline the processing of what could otherwise be hundreds of individual agreements; landowners could opt out of increased regulation should the Sage-grouse be listed; and Sage-grouse might possibly benefit, too.
Sage-grouse inhabit nearly 11 million acres of private land in Wyoming. Potentially, any of that land where ranch practices occur could be included in the conservation agreement now being developed.
As the listing clock ticks, the conservation agreement for Sage-grouse on Wyoming ranchland is still being drafted. The hope is that after testing, this ranch-specific agreement could be a model for additional agreements with other industries. But if the wildlife service decides that listing is warranted now, the state will have just one year– until March 2011– to complete any Sage-grouse conservation agreements. Once the grouse is officially listed, it is too late to sign on to a voluntary agreement.
The governor’s office expects that more landowners from all industries will have an incentive to sign up if the wildlife service decides that listing is warranted.
So the conservation agreement effort now appears to be more a plan to shield landowners from the regulation that would come with listing, rather than a strategy to avoid listing altogether.
Covington noted that landowners with Sage-grouse on their property have already been trying to develop their own conservation agreements, and have also approached his office with an interest in the state’s umbrella agreement. The governor’s office expects the statewide agreement to be ready early next fall.
According to Ryan Lance, Deputy Chief of Staff in to the governor, the entire history of Wyoming has seen only one individual conservation agreement implemented, and that one took ten years to develop.