Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell chats with LaTasha Wauneka-Anderson at the Murie Center in Grand Teton National Park, where Jewell warned of the impact of potential changes to sage grouse conservation plans. Jewell received the 2017 Murie Spirit of Conservation Award and tapped Wauneka-Anderson to receive the Murie Center’s Rising Leader Award. (Leine Stikkel/WyoFile)

MOOSE — Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell warned Wednesday that proposed changes to nationwide sage grouse conservation plans could lead to federal management of the imperiled bird.

The conservation plans — developed collaboratively by the federal government,11 western states and the private sector and implemented under Jewell’s administration in 2015 — prevented the bird from being listed as a threatened or endangered species. Listing would have wrested management from the states and dramatically curtailed activities across 67 million federal acres of the Western sagebrush sea.

But the effectiveness of those federal plans will be reviewed in 2020, Jewell warned. So, conservation changes directed this week by her successor Ryan Zinke again raises the prospect of federal restrictions on livestock grazing and oil and gas development, among other activities.

“I don’t understand why Secretary Zinke is launching this review,” Jewell said in an interview Thursday with WyoFile. “But I think it is ill-advised and if significant changes were made to the work that was done, the consequences could be a listing of the greater sage grouse … under the Endangered Species Act in the space of three or four more years. And that would result in the control of these landscapes being taken from the states and overseen by the federal government, and nobody wants that.”

On Mardy Murie’s doorstep

Jewell made her comments yards from the log-cabin home of the late conservationist Mardy Murie and her family in Grand Teton National Park. Jewell had just addressed supporters of the Teton Science Schools after receiving the Murie Spirit of Conservation Award from that group.

The decision by Jewell’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the greater sage grouse under the ESA in 2015 included a caveat to review the status of the species in five years. Zinke this week directed the BLM to “immediately begin implementing the short- and long-term recommendations in the Report,” from his own grouse team. Zinke’s team spent 60 days reviewing Jewell’s conservation plans, which revised 98 federal land-use plans in 10 western states.

Zinke’s new plan could allow more drilling in grouse habitat and a reduction of protected acreage in high-priority sagebrush focal areas. It would shift the measure of species viability from habitat protection to bird numbers, a metric scientists say is inappropriate. It could abolish requirements to act upon catastrophic losses of populations or habitat. Conversely, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has expressed concern that naturally fluctuating populations could trigger unnecessary action under a Zinke plan. Zinke’s proposal also could increase livestock grazing.

“I don’t know why he is launching this review,” Jewell said. “But I am confident that the work that was done by the many states and the federal government is going to stand any test he wants to throw at it. So I’m confident the work will survive. But I think it’s a waste of time and resources to be reviewing it and I appreciate Gov. [Matt] Mead and other Western governors for standing up for the work we did collaboratively.”

Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote Zinke in May, saying “wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time.” This week Mead criticized aspects of Zinke’s re-write, focusing on the secretary’s shift from habitat to numbers as a critical measure.

“Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species,” Mead said in a statement. Mead this week also raised the specter of an ESA listing for the grouse, the Associated Press reported.

10-year plan vs 60-day review

In contrast to Zinke’s 60-day review, Wyoming’s plan, a blueprint for nationwide conservation, took more than a decade to develop. “Wyoming [is] 10 years ahead of the other states in proving what would work on the ground,” Jewell said. “And Gov. Mead carried on the great work of [former Wyoming] Gov. [Dave] Freudenthal that became a model for other states to follow.

“The sage grouse effort was a collaboration of 11 Western states, seven core states, to say ‘How do we work cooperatively to preserve critical habitat; to understand where it is; to develop in the right ways in the right places, but to conserve in the right places as well?’

“So, when we chose to not list the bird as an endangered species, we did it at the podium with two democratic and two republican governors as an example of the bipartisan collaboration between state fish and wildlife offices, federal government, the Audubon Society, and many other nonprofits working together.”

Those interested in conservation should remain engaged, Jewell said. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

The Science Schools and Murie Center recognized Jewell — the 51st U.S. Secretary of the Interior who left that post six months ago — for establishing the ‘Every Kid in the Park’ initiative that seeks to get all fourth graders and their families into national parks.

Jewell was also a key player in the preservation of 640 acres of Wyoming school trust land in Grand Teton that could have been sold for development.

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“Jewell’s work has carried on the Murie Legacy and demonstrates exemplary commitment to the protection of wildlife and wild places through leadership and community building,” the awards program said.

In accepting the award, Jewell was asked to name an up-and-coming conservation leader. She tapped LaTasha Wauneka-Anderson, a Navajo, Dartmouth graduate, and recreation program assistant at the Lincoln National Forest in California. Wauneka-Anderson told of her native culture of conservation.

“I was born with it,” Anderson said. “It is in our DNA.” Her culture calls for considering impacts of any action on the succeeding seven generations.

The Science Schools operates the Murie Center, an environmental educational retreat with a log cabin campus at Moose. The Murie family’s legacy includes preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

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 or (307)...

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