Gov. Matt Mead has asked the federal government to revise greater sage grouse protection plans covering 31,000 square miles to make them consistent with Wyoming’s own strategy, a move challenged by an environmental group.
In a series of letters sent June 29, Mead said the federal conservation plans must be consistent with Wyoming’s, as long as Wyoming’s own regulations don’t violate U.S. laws. His letters asked for revisions covering grazing, and some aspects of energy development, among other things.
Mead also said federal agencies have no business regulating development of minerals such as gold, silver, copper, gypsum, gemstones and others.
“I request the [Bureau of Land Management] and the [U.S. Forest Service] to revise these plans to achieve consistency and if this is not done to explain how achieving consistency would result in a violation of federal law,” Mead wrote. Consistency is required under the Federal Land Management Policy Act, he wrote.
Some conservation groups have supported Wyoming’s efforts. But one group, WildEarth Guardians, remains outspokenly opposed. It has criticized foundational elements of Wyoming’s plan, from its core-area maps to protection zones around greater sage grouse breeding areas, known as leks. “Instead of fixing these well-understood problems, Gov. Mead has chosen to thumb his nose at the science, so he has no right to complain if Endangered Species Act protections are ultimately applied for the sage grouse,” WildEarth Guardian biologist Erik Molvar said in an email.
The federal plans, released two months ago, cover about 32 percent of Wyoming landscapes that are owned and managed by the federal government. The BLM and forest service are adopting the conservation measures to provide assurances to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that greater sage grouse no longer need to be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must make that determination by the end of September. Listing the troubled bird would result in widespread restrictions on activities in sagebrush country disrupting grazing and oil and gas development, among other activities.
Wyoming had 60 days from release of the BLM and forest service plans to review whether those plans hewed closely to the state’s own “programs, plans and policies.” Mead had already filed a protest, meeting a 30-day deadline for that document.
One of those Wyoming programs, plans and policies is the governor’s own executive order “Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection,” which he signed July 29 to meet the federal deadline. It updates and replaces older orders protecting sage grouse that were set to expire Aug. 18.
There’s no requirement for the BLM and forest service to respond to the consistency review by a certain time, Mead’s natural resource policy advisor Jerimiah Rieman has said. As the Fish and Wildlife Service considers the status of the greater sage grouse between now and October, however, the state that’s home to 38 percent of the world’s population has staked out its position in detail.
Wyoming’s own sage grouse plan
Mead’s Executive Order is based on work done by his Sage Grouse Implementation Team and applies to activities requiring state permits. It directs agencies to limit disruption according to rules covering mapped sage grouse core-area habitat. The core-area strategy has seen some pushback from stockmen and oil and gas interests, but Mead’s administration has generally represented those interests.
WildEarth has criticized the state’s sage grouse protections for years. Wyoming’s core-area maps gerrymandered 17 percent of top-tier greater sage grouse habitat out of protection zones because of potential energy development, the group said.
There’s no scientific support for the state’s “tiny” 0.6-mile buffer for leks, said Molvar, WildEarth’s sagebrush sea campaign director. He also criticized Wyoming for allowing more than 3 percent surface disturbance per 640 acres. The state is “watering down well-density calculations by inflating the area of the calculation up to 30 times the project area to allow ultra-dense developments,” he charged.
Mead’s new executive order did map winter concentration areas south of Pinedale where some 1,500 to 2,000 grouse from across Sublette County congregate. The order restricts exploration and development in winter, but does not prohibit winter activities once a gas field is developed.
The winter concentration areas are in the path of the proposed 141,000-acre Normally Pressured Lance gas field. There, Jonah Energy has proposed drilling 3,500 wells at four times the density that would be allowed in core areas. The state grouse team rejected biologists’ recommendations that the area be zoned for core-area protection, instead promising to convene a SGIT subcommittee for further study.
“If the oil industry is allowed to industrialize and destroy sage grouse wintering habitats as long as they do it during the off-season, the sage grouse will be deprived of the habitats they need to survive the winter,” Molvar wrote in an email.
Molvar did applaud “key additions” to core-area maps in Mead’s new executive order. They are located near the Kinney Rim and southern Atlantic Rim in the Red Desert. But there also were “some important carve-outs” in the Douglas, Buffalo, and Seedskadee core areas, some at the request of the minerals industry.
“The biggest disappointment is the governor’s decision not to expand the core-area system in the Powder River Basin, where the sage grouse population has a high likelihood of extinction within 30 years and less than half of the sage grouse fall within core-area habitats,” Molvar wrote.
He referenced one study that shows Wyoming’s core-area strategy would cut greater sage grouse population declines. But long-term declines would continue, amounting to a loss of between 9 percent and 15 percent of the population. Even that would require spending $250 million on conservation easements. The peer-reviewed paper was authored by Lander-based Nature Conservancy biologist Holly Copeland, and others, and was published in PLOS in 2013.
WildEarth also issued a report July 30 saying the federal plans — issued for nine other western states in addition to Wyoming — cut protections for grouse by shrinking the amount of priority habitat.
“Apparently the federal agencies thought that they could sneak huge reductions in the acreage of Priority Habitats past the public by releasing all the plans at the same time,” Molvar said in a statement. “But we caught them, and in plenty of time to alert the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the dirty tricks land-use agencies are using to weaken grouse protections.” The acreage left unprotected is larger than South Carolina, WildEarth said.
The report includes a map, “The Sinking Sagebrush Sea,” that shows a time-lapse depiction of WildEarth’s analysis of the disappearance of sage grouse habitat and its protection.
Details of Mead’s objections
Mead’s letters say federal plans “layer additional and unreasonable management constraints” on mineral and livestock producers and others. The proposed rules go beyond what’s necessary to protect the greater sage-grouse. They are inconsistent and with Wyoming’s strategy with BLM and U.S. Forest Service multiple-use sustained yield mandates, he wrote.
Mead seeks to elevate livestock grazing from a threat to a neutral or beneficial activity. Federal grouse conservation plans “contain analysis flaws, create confusion and seem to be based on a misconception that livestock grazing poses a threat to Greater sage-grouse,” Mead wrote. Instead, “accepted science, the USFWS and my [Executive Order] recognize that livestock grazing poses no threat to sage-grouse.”
It’s also “unacceptable” that the federal plans do not estimate socioeconomic impacts that could result to agriculture.
The federal government needs to recognize county roads as an intrusion that essentially has no impact on grouse habitat. He also said “required design features,” such as sound baffling on drilling rigs, are “onerous and stifle Wyoming’s energy, agriculture and recreation economies.”
Required features are static “with virtually no incentive for generating new ideas that could reduce impacts,” Mead said. Instead, the requirements should become less-restrictive “best management practices.”
One attachment that’s part of the Governor’s release of correspondence is a July 20 memo from Andrew Kuhlmann, senior assistant attorney general for Wyoming. Kuhlmann wrote to Mead’s Natural Resource Policy Director Jerimiah Rieman regarding authority over locatable minerals — gold, silver, copper and others, not including oil, gas, coal, sand and gravel.
“The state regulates the exploration and development of ‘locatable minerals’ at both the exploration and extraction phases and regardless of who owns the land,” Kuhlmann wrote. Instead of allowing Wyoming to govern that exploration and development, the federal plans call for withdrawing 252,070 acres from locatable mineral exploration and development and for considering withdrawal across another 894,060 acres.