Two greater sage grouse males strut on a snow-covered Sublette County lek. (photo by Elizabeth Boehm courtesy of The National Audubon Society)

Wyoming has repeatedly had to stand up and be a leader in the West, bringing people together to find solutions to difficult challenges. The sage grouse issue is no exception.

Since 2007, guided by then-Governors Freudenthal and Mead, Wyoming has been the stalwart voice of reason. Perhaps that’s because Wyoming holds the majority of the birds and has a lot at stake, or perhaps it’s simply because we aren’t quitters.

And it looks like our job is far from done.

I was proud to stand alongside three western governors, including Gov. Mead, on a stage when the announcement was made that sage grouse did not warrant federal protection in 2015. The decision stated that “the Greater sage grouse is not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range and that listing the species is no longer warranted.”

This conclusion was based on the “adequacy of regulatory mechanisms and conservation efforts.” The foundation for those mechanisms are the federal management plans because 64 percent of the birds are found on federally managed lands.

Without a doubt, the in-depth overhaul of the federal management plans across 10 states was a lot of work. My brothers- and sisters-in arms on the governor-appointed Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team (because that’s what it feels like – we’ve battled the ups and downs together) have worked for years to find solutions that enabled robust energy development while ensuring a future for this iconic bird. Many others across the region have used the growing scientific knowledge of the bird, much of it learned right here in Wyoming, to craft solid state and federal management plans.

The plans for federal lands and the State of Wyoming’s plan were recognized for providing that necessary regulatory mechanism which kept the bird from being listed as threatened or endangered.

So when the mandate came from Washington D.C. in 2017 for the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to “review” the 2015 management plans, to “identify plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on the potential for energy and other development on public lands,” there was a tangible ripple of unease across the West. This singular focus on how public lands should be used did not sit well. Westerners saw it as not only short-sighted, but harmful to the other many values associated with our public lands, and utterly disrespectful to the many years of work and partnerships that resulted to the 2015 plans.

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In early December, the BLM released its near-final proposed changes to the grouse management plans. Many were disappointed to see that they had the fingerprints of D.C. politicians all over them. The proposed changes are a serious step backwards for Wyoming and the future of sage grouse, yet again placing us at an important crossroads. For over a decade, Wyoming governors have pushed back against the BLM when necessary and asked the very best of each member of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team. They’ve asked us to put our individual interests aside and put the best interest of the bird at the forefront of the decision-making process, because that was the smart thing to do for Wyoming.

Now we call on Gov. Mark Gordon, as part of the Governor’s Consistency Review, to defend Wyoming’s proud work that ensured a future for sage grouse and a balanced approach to energy development.  

If the BLM fails to honor the deal made in 2015 in favor of politically-motivated public management decisions, Wyoming will be in the precarious position of holding the bag on the future of sage grouse. We have the science and the broad public support to do the right thing.  Washington might have forgotten how to honor a deal but we haven’t, especially on an issue that affects so many in Wyoming who work, play and value our public lands.

Brian Rutledge has been a member of the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team since its creation in 2007 by Governor Dave Freudenthal. He serves as the Director of the National Audubon Society's Sagebrush...

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