Gov. Mark Gordon has drawn praise from conservationists in adopting “the vast majority” of recommended changes to his greater sage grouse protective order.
But in the new executive order Gordon signed last week, he balked at a recommendation that called for “expansion” of the bird’s population and habitat, making such actions voluntary in the statewide conservation plan. Gordon also drew criticism for sticking with development guidelines critics say don’t meet the best practices recommended by science.
Two conservation groups nevertheless lauded Gordon for adopting the sweeping conservation order that sets conservation policy for approximately 37% of the world’s greater sage grouse. Gordon “demonstrates Wyoming’s continued leadership … despite rampant efforts by the federal government to undermine it,” the National Audubon Society’s Brian Rutledge said in a statement.
Among the changes are new annual reporting requirements that will allow the Sage Grouse Implementation Team to track progress or the lack thereof. The order also prevents incremental increases of intrusive noise that might have disrupted mating birds, a former Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist said.
The 58-page order requires state agencies to use their authority to limit disturbance of key grouse habitat while allowing for mineral development, livestock grazing and other activities. It also requires developers to make up for unavoidable habitat loss in some instances.
Gordon called the order, which he updated and strengthened from previous gubernatorial fiats, a “proven strategy.” He signed it Wednesday after months of work by his office and the 24–member SGIT advisory panel.
Order ‘doesn’t change commitment’
Sage Grouse Implementation Team leader Bob Budd said he was “pretty pleased” with the governor’s update.
Gordon did edit the team’s recommendation that Wyoming “make expansion of greater sage grouse populations and their habitats a priority.”
That passage now reads that the state, “where feasible through voluntary efforts, [will] seek opportunities to expand populations and habitats for Greater sage-grouse in Wyoming.”
Budd said the edit makes no practical difference.
“The whole point is we don’t want to lose sight of a goal that we do good things where we have the opportunity to do it,” he said in an interview with WyoFile. “The original draft … there were people uncomfortable that would create a regulatory burden that was unintended … So we went back and worked on it back and forth to see if we could find a place that hit the sweet spot.”
Budd said he thinks the edited language accomplishes that.
While the SGIT team vetted its recommendations in public meetings, Gordon’s edits were made privately in consultation with his staff. The governor launched his initiative, however, by calling for public comment and received hundreds of pages of them.
The edited language “doesn’t change our commitment as a state of doing the right thing,” Budd said. Also, it “doesn’t create a burden that is undue.”
The order retains other language calling for the state to “prioritize the maintenance and enhancement of Greater sage-grouse habitats and populations inside Core Population Areas, Connectivity Areas, and Winter Concentration Areas.”
The order also will prevent incremental noise increases around breeding-ground leks during critical times of the year when male sage grouse cluck and strut in a unique ritual, a former Game and Fish Department biologist said. Tom Christiansen, former sage grouse coordinator for the state, said in that way, the order “takes care of my concern.”
He had worried that new allowances for noise intrusions might accumulate with each project, leading to a “creep” of a baseline measuring starting point.
“Basically the new executive order … clarifies that cumulative noise from all human sources be accounted for — not just the noise from a new project,” Christiansen said. “The other thing that’s really important is the noise stipulation is now supplemented with state-of-the-art monitoring protocol from Game and Fish.”
Improvements could still be made, Christiansen said, but studies that set ambient natural noise levels at 25 decibels haven’t been published in peer-reviewed journals and thus can’t be adopted as bullet-proof science.
Lacking peer-reviewed standards, “it’s a little bit premature to put a threshold out there,” Christiansen said. Nevertheless, because the executive order is flexible, “this protocol will get there.”
Wyoming will have to ‘lead the way’
Grouse occupy 15 million acres of habitat in Wyoming and the order covers 84% of the state’s population, the executive order says.
Govs. Dave Freudenthal and Matt Mead issued similar orders starting in 2008. The executive actions were discretionary directives independent of federal land and wildlife agency programs and aimed at avoiding listing of the bird as a threatened or endangered species under federal law.
A key element of the order — “incentivizing and prioritizing development outside of core population areas” — seeks collaboration with federal agencies responsible for authorizing oil and gas leasing and other activities. The Trump administration, however, has abandoned such a concept by changing protective regulations. During Trump’s presidency there have been sharp increases in oil and gas lease sales and drilling approvals in key grouse habitat.
Conservationists describe a hierarchy of preservation — avoidance, mitigation and compensation — as the best approach to saving species and habitat. But the U.S Bureau of Land Management has recently sold thousands of acres of oil and gas leases in critical grouse country, a shift, critics say, that puts the preservation burden on Wyoming alone.
“We were much better off when we had a fully committed partner in the federal government,” John Rader, Wyoming Outdoor Council’s conservation advocate, said in a statement. “Wyoming will again have to lead the way and insist that federal agencies follow our expertise and efforts to conserve the sage-grouse.”
Audubon’s Rutledge also chided the Trump administration, saying that because the BLM and U.S. Forest Service manage half of sage grouse habitat, “it’s critical that they engage at the level that Wyoming is.
“Until then, we hope that state leaders will continue to ensure that sage-grouse and the iconic sagebrush ecosystem are not a victim of Washington DC politics,” the society’s vice president and Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative director said in his statement.
Not everyone pleased
Gordon’s changes didn’t placate Western Watersheds Project, a group critical of grazing and development of public lands in the West. It called adoption of the new plan “another lost opportunity for the State of Wyoming to bring its sage-grouse protections up to scientific standards.”
“This means that the current declining populations have an even dimmer prospect of recovering to healthy levels,” Erik Molvar, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
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Perceived flaws include buffers around leks that remain at 0.6 miles despite what Molvar said was “science showing that the appropriate lek buffers should be set at 3.1 to 5 miles.
He also criticized allowable density of development, noise standards, lack of protection for winter concentration areas in the upper Green River drainage, fence standards and grazing allowances, among other things.
“This new plan demonstrates that Wyoming remains committed to a status quo that has caused this iconic bird to decline from vast populations to perilous scarcity over the past century,” Molvar’s statement read.
Budd sees the effort differently. “When we set out we said ‘we’ve got something that has worked,’” he said. “The governor, it wasn’t his intent to reinvent the wheel.”
“We continue to have a very strong executive order,” Budd said. “It speaks loads about the governor’s commitment.”