A male greater sage grouse struts his stuff during the annual spring mating ritual. (Stan Harter/Wyoming Game and Fish)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s proposed reworking of greater sage grouse conservation plans are “minor tweaks” and not the “wholesale changes” Gov. Matt Mead lobbied against, the governor said Tuesday.

Zinke’s proposal would amend — and scientists say reduce — protections in 67 Bureau of Land Management and 20 Forest Service conservation plans forged in 2015 to keep the bird off the list of threatened and endangered species. Unveiled last month, the proposals would “conserve public land habitat in cooperation with state plans for managing wildlife species,” the BLM said.

Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper asked Zinke last year not to make “wholesale changes” to plans agreed to in 2015. Mead appears to be satisfied the secretary heard him. “The recent proposed revisions to the Bureau of Land Management’s sage-grouse plans in Wyoming are minor tweaks to existing plans rather than wholesale changes,” he said in a statement.

The Governor will continue to study the amendments, he said, while the federal agency collects comments for changes in Wyoming through August 2. “I will continue reviewing the documents and commenting, as appropriate, after hearing from people and groups — including the Sage Grouse Implementation Team — on their views and thoughts.”

The chairman of that team echoed Mead’s view. “They don’t change what we do in Wyoming in any measurable way,” Bob Budd said in a telephone interview. “I don’t find them particularly onerous, scary or particularly large-scale as far as change is concerned.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead answer questions from the press at an event announcing the release of 14 Bureau of Land Management Environmental Impact Statements covering changes to 98 Resource Management Plans across 10 western states to advance conservation of the greater sage-grouse. Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team leader Bob Budd stands at center in cowboy hat. (USFWS)

That’s in part because Wyoming has been working on conservation standards for 18 years, starting with Game and Fish efforts launched in 2000. Gov. Dave Freudenthal boosted the effort in 2007, forming the Sage Grouse Implementation Team and adopting the state’s Core Area Strategy in 2011.

The Federal plans adopted in 2015 — documents that are now being revised to give states flexibility and align with their plans — largely followed the core-area strategy in Wyoming. That strategy, which seeks to direct development away from core grouse habitat, covered more than 80 percent of the state’s grouse population, according to a review by Audubon.

Conservationists, however, fear the state-centric approach could mortally compromise the conservation strategy.

Revisions not needed

A year ago Gov. Matt Mead wrote to Zinke saying there was no need for “wholesale changes” to the federal conservation plans, and last week 21 leading sage grouse scientists went a step further. In a letter to Zinke, attached below, the group wrote that the government’s own research shows any changes must have a “narrow, science-based focus.”

Zinke’s state-centered revisions do not, they wrote.

The 2015 federal plans incorporated many state strategies, but also took into account “larger-scale dynamics that often cross jurisdictional boundaries and are important for range-wide management,” the scientists wrote. That umbrella view is being lost in the amendments, they contend. “Maintaining both perspectives [local and landscape] is critical for long-term conservation of the species,” the letter said.

The West-wide landscape view is especially necessary since new research shows the importance of “effective connectivity” among areas of priority grouse habitat, said Matt Holloran, a scientist who spent 20 years studying grouse response to energy development. “Maintaining that connectivity is critical, especially for those peripheral populations,” he said in a telephone press conference explaining the letter.

“Pinch points” challenge grouse as they try to move from one population to another, he said. They threaten avenues that help keep all grouse groups genetically diverse, a survival advantage. Biologists fear that without the landscape-scale perspective provided by the federal plans that are now being changed, there could be “an inadvertent impact to one of these pinch points that could effectively isolate one of the peripheral populations,” Holloran said.

Biologists study the connectivity between greater sage grouse populations to ensure genetic diversity is maintained. “Pinch points” are places where connectivity could be cut off, isolating peripheral populations. (Crist, Nick, Hanser/BioOne)

In Wyoming, for example, scientists wonder whether shrinking grouse numbers and other factors have isolated a grumble of grouse in Jackson Hole from cousins in the Green River drainage. The Jackson Hole group, scientists have said, could have traits that contribute to adaptability during climate change, traits that could be lost if the population is cut off from others and withers.

Even over-arching federal efforts have fallen short of protecting grouse across their Western domain, the scientists said. Addressing cumulative effects — the nickel-and-dime destruction of sage grouse habitat — is a federal function, said both Holloran and Terry Riley, North American Grouse Partnership’s director of policy.

“Rarely do they do a very good job of that,” Riley said of governments’ efforts to stop incremental habitat erosion. Cumulative effects,“they’re often ignored at the state level and even the national level.”

A bird for all seasons

Not all local plans protect the habitat that grouse need during all seasons, the scientists wrote. Breeding and nesting areas tend to be well defined, but that’s only part of the habitat necessary for the greater sage grouse life cycle. For example, “in Wyoming there’s quite a bit of effort now to identify winter concentration areas,” Holloran said in the press conference.

Some newly discovered winter concentration areas — where up to 2,000 grouse congregate — lie outside of protected grouse habitat. Birds that live in protected areas in other seasons may also rely on unprotected winter concentration areas. Will grouse be cut off by development? “They need to be able to access all these distinct ranges,” Holloran said.

Collared grouse from core areas have been located in winter in the proposed NPL gas field south of Pinedale, as this map using data from 2005-20011 shows. (Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society)

The BLM is on the cusp of approving a 141,000-acre, 3,500-well gas field that would develop parts of a winter concentration area in Sublette County. The drilling would occur in the Normally Pressured Lance field, a $17 billion prospect owned by Jonah Energy and the private equity group TPG.

“The result could be a death blow to the Upper Green sage grouse population and be a major contributor to the ultimate listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. Similar drilling has been shown to cause significant sage grouse population declines, Western Watersheds and the Upper Green River Alliance said.

Grouse team leader Budd said he hadn’t read the BLM documents proposing to approve the NPL gas field, but is not worried. “I have to trust they’ve gone through that with a pretty fine-tooth comb,” he said of the BLM review.

At NPL “a concurrent study would be conducted while development is occurring to better understand the impacts of developing in Winter Concentration Areas,” the BLM states in its latest environmental study. “The results of the study … would inform BLM understanding of impacts and subsequent development in Winter Concentration Areas,” the agency stated.

The drilling is a $17 billion experiment with grouse at risk, said Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s sagebrush ecosystem initiative. “We don’t even know why it’s a winter concentration area,” he said last year.

On Wyoming’s sage grouse team, “we have a methodology to look at the impacts on winter birds,” leader Budd said. “That could be valuable to us and the species down the road.”

More work will be done before development, he said. “We’re a long ways from drilling any wells,” Budd said.

Grouse numbers slipping, leases increasing

Scientists have said that at best the 2015 federal plans now under review only slow a decline in sage grouse numbers. Holloran acknowledged that downward trend last week, saying “the decline has slowed, but it’s still a decline.”

As the BLM and Forest Service look to revise, and some say weaken, federal plans to protect grouse, Zinke continues to offer more energy leases. Leasing plans this year have provoked pushback and protests, including charges that the 2015 protections aren’t being followed even as they are being changed.

Conservation groups say new oil and gas leases proposed by the BLM covers core habitat of greater sage grouse, contradicting federal plans that say energy development should be directed away from such areas. (The Wilderness Society/National Wildlife Federation/The Audubon Society)

“These plans are still on the books and commit the Bureau of Land Management to focus leasing outside sage-grouse habitat,” Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, said in a statement, “but the agency seems to be taking the opposite approach and leasing everywhere inside sage-grouse habitat.” Rutledge agreed.

“You couldn’t make these lease sales worse for sage-grouse if you tried,” he said in a statement. He referenced new mapping that plots proposed leases over grouse habitat. Those maps show that 99.9 percent of the 1.3 million acres being offered for oil and gas leases in upcoming sales in Wyoming intersect with sage-grouse habitat on public lands.

“Westerners didn’t sign on for the elimination of sage-grouse or more than 350 other species that depend on the sagebrush,” Rutledge stated. “They made a deal to save the bird, its habitat and the local economies in sagebrush country. They simply want Interior to honor the deal.”

Other states less likely to continue protections

Because Wyoming is home to 38 percent of the world’s greater sage grouse, it stands to suffer more than other states from future development restrictions if grouse populations decline radically, leading to rigid Endangered Species Act protections.  That’s why Wyoming always is interested in the bird’s status West-wide.

Three of the 11 states affected by the 2015 federal grouse protections, including Wyoming, are essentially sticking with the 2015 guidelines, said Mary Flanderka, a policy advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. The other eight, “they’re basically abandoning the plan,” she said. Generally, the federal amendments “allow more flexibility [for industry] and less certainty in conservation protections.”

Wyoming birds remain somewhat protected by the state plan, but it depends on who the state’s chief executive is. The core-area strategy hinges on an executive order adopted by Freudenthal and modified and endorsed by Mead. What Wyoming’s next governor will do is uncertain.

“I do believe that [Sage Grouse Implementation Team] came together as a group with industry and conservationists,” she said. “I think they’re still standing strong behind it,” she said of the 2015 plan. “The coalition is still pretty strong in Wyoming and that’s something to be proud of.”

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Budd isn’t sounding an alarm. “I’m not going to jump out and say something happening out there is going to affect us,” he said. “We’re all in this together and we understand that. I think the other states are as respectful of our process as we are of theirs.”

Mead, too, gave other states and federal agencies support. “Western states have done extensive and effective work for sage grouse and their habitat,” his statement said. “The goal of these efforts is a thriving species and success requires a long term, comprehensive view. I appreciate the Department of the Interior and the BLM’s availability through many meetings and conversations to hear concerns and work through the process.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled in 2020 to review the status of the greater sage grouse to see whether the species still does not merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency could act sooner if it receives a petition alleging greater sage grouse are in imminent danger.

By 2020, “it will be up to Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if there is enough conservation effort [in] the other eight [states] to keep the bird off the list,” Flanderka said.


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 angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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