LANDER – For the first time, Wyoming’s greater sage grouse team is recommending the governor adopt an explicit policy to increase the bird’s population and expand its habitat, instead of simply minimizing their declines.
The state’s sage grouse team finalized that and other recommendations to Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday. Gordon’s staff is reviewing the recommendations by the 24-member Sage Grouse Implementation Team for potential adoption in the governor’s executive order.
The executive order — first issued by Gov. Dave Freudenthal in 2008 and updated by Gov. Matt Mead during his time in office — protects grouse by defining core-area habitat and directing state agencies to adhere to limits on development there among other measures. Gordon has said he wants to put his mark on the document by updating it but not undertaking a “major overhaul.”
Gordon revised the five-page order earlier this year and submitted it and its appendices to the grouse team for recommendations. The team last week agreed to propose a new clause that declares “expansion of greater sage grouse populations and their habitats is a priority…”
That aim has been implicit said Bob Budd, SGIT chairman, but would become explicit with Gordon’s signature.
“I think we always believed that,” Budd said in a telephone interview after the meeting.
But recognizing it in writing would be “a huge event,” said SGIT member Brian Rutledge, director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative for the National Audubon Society. Before the SGIT meeting in Lander last week there was “very little expression of that need being met,” he said.
Historic gold claims lurk
In addition to the population boost, the team recommended Gordon adopt new annual reporting requirements. The state’s attention to invasive species and their impact on sagebrush habitat emerged as another area where Wyoming has recently made strides, grouse advocates said. How to handle mitigation — the replacement of destroyed habitat — will be left for the Legislature for now.
But team members could not agree on how to limit noise from industrial activities, such as oil and gas drilling. And they saw a threat from the potential development of hard-rock mining claims like those established long ago for gold.
Many mining claims secured under the 1872 Mining Act remain valid but undeveloped, Budd told the group. Obama-era revisions to BLM resource plans put some key sagebrush areas off limits to such hard-rock development, but the Trump administration rolled back that standard across the West.
Developers in Wyoming who seek to make good on discoveries would still need state approval through the state Department of Environmental Quality, Budd said. Other states don’t have that requirement. That gives Wyoming some leverage to limit disturbance, but still poses jeopardy to habitat, grouse team members said
Wyoming’s DEQ requirement gives the state “a fair amount of comfort,” Budd said. Development is “not something that’s going to come out of nowhere and destroy a lot of habitat.”
But pointing to the historic gold mining district at South Pass in Fremont County, Budd said that the large number of claims there “would shock you.”
A court challenge could upend Wyoming’s plan to limit habitat-destroying activities, team members said. Such a challenge could even originate in another state and impact Wyoming’s conservation efforts.
A nervous truce exists between the state and miners, team members said, with some developers choosing not to pursue claims while conservation advocates and regulators “stepped delicately” in one recent permitting negotiation, Budd said.
“It is ripe for a lawsuit,” Budd told the group. “If they hit the mother lode…”
Gov. will decide on noise
Team members could not agree how to measure and limit potential noise disturbances to grouse, leaving the issue for the governor to decide without a consensus recommendation. Noise has been shown to disrupt greater sage grouse behavior, according to scientists.
The principal sticking point is how to define and measure the background noise that exists prior to development.
Some scientists are adamant that background levels represent an environment as close to pristine as possible and that decibel measurements are arrived at using formulae that exclude occasional spikes such as those caused by overflying jets.
“The background ambient is the sound level at a site in the absence of anthropogenic influence and needs to be measured carefully to exclude potential human influences,” a Nevada Department of Wildlife review of the science reads (emphasis in the original).
In comments on the plan submitted earlier this year, an expert in acoustics detailed what he believed should be the technical standard.
“New project noise levels … should not exceed 10 decibels above baseline noise at the perimeter of a lek during the breeding season,” Skip Ambrose of Western Bioacoustics, Inc. wrote in April. The baseline measurement “must be done prior to any development, or, if not possible, in a nearby, similar area without development.”
Establishing and maintaining that beginning point is critical, former Wyoming Game and Fish sage grouse leader Tom Christiansen said after the meeting. “We’re concerned about baseline creep.”
Rutledge said scientific papers supporting rigorous standards have yet to be published and peer-reviewed — the standard for use by SGIT.
Disagreement centers on the methodology, Budd said after the meeting. “Does the methodology overstate quiet or does it reflect what’s happening out there?”
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this one,” Budd told members of the group.
The team recommended a new appendix to the executive order requiring annual reporting by state agencies and encouraging the same from federal partners. It would be the ninth appendix to the main order, which is a five-page cover document composed of “whereas” and “therefore” clauses.
If adopted, state agencies would report by March 1 every year their respective permitting actions, conservation efforts and population data. By April 30 they would submit information on various population and habitat trends, data gaps, research needs and recommendations for adaptive management.
Federal agencies would be expected to contribute permitting actions, conservation efforts and other relevant reports annually.
“We’ve kind of put a burden on ourselves — fairly strong requirements on agencies and others to get those reports in,” Budd said in an interview.
During grouse-team discussion an industry representative — Paul Ulrich, Jonah Energy’s director of government affairs — supported timely reporting by bureaucrats. “I don’t see why the agencies can’t get their crap together,” he said.
Budd found it “very refreshing” to see industry on the side of conservation and challenging state government and others, he said. Rutledge agreed, saying state agencies “have no excuse not to do this job.”
Authentic preservation comes from agreements like that displayed by Ulrich, Rutledge said. “When you have industry standing up for me on conservation points, that’s real conservation.”
State action also may help address the biggest range-wide threat to grouse habitat — what biologist and former Game and Fish sage grouse lead Tom Christiansen described as “a devil’s triad of wildfire, invasive plants and climate change,” in the April 2019 issue of Wyoming Wildlife. All told Gov. Gordon has requested and the Legislature has approved $1.7 million to combat invasive species and weed control.
“The potential to be strong … the potential for real conservation is there in the whole issue of invasive species,” Christiansen said in an interview.
Finally, the group agreed on a way to measure unique but scratchy grouse habitat in the northeast part of Wyoming. Birds survive there under as little as 5% sagebrush cover.
“Anywhere else it would not be considered suitable habitat,” Rutledge said. “The birds are using it differently than anywhere else in the state.”
Without recognizing the anomaly, acreage could be classified as disturbed, written off and subject to more degradation.
“We’re trying to hang on to a population of birds in what [the grouse] think is suitable habitat,” Rutledge said.
Before disturbance limits are exceeded, developers should prove the landscape is not suitable for greater sage grouse using measures other than sagebrush cover that’s applicable in other areas, he said. “That should be the burden,” Rutledge said.
The big picture
Human activity and development across 13 western states is principally responsible for degradation of greater sage grouse habitat, scientists have said. Those changes have cut pre-settlement greater sage grouse habitat in half, Rutledge said in an interview.
But instead of having only half the possible historic population across half its former habitat, “we’re seeing somewhere between 5% to 7% of the grouse’s historical population,” he said. Across the West, “we diminished the capacity of that range,” Rutledge said.
Adopting a population “lift” as a priority in Wyoming would move the state program from a holding action to a conservation policy, he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there may have been up to 16 million greater sage grouse across 463,509 square miles before the West was settled. In 2015, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimated a minimum breeding population of 424,645 birds worldwide — all residing on only 258,075 square miles in 11 western states.
Wyoming is home to about 37% of the world’s greater sage grouse, which live on 43 million of the Wyoming’s 62 million acres. Core-area protections cover 15.9 million acres, about 36% of the state’s grouse-occupied habitat. Approximately 85% of Wyoming’s birds live in core areas, according to the grouse team.
Based on those figures, WyoFile calculates that 31% of greater sage grouse live in Wyoming core areas on 10% of their current west-wide habitat. That’s about 24,843 square miles in the state. Wyoming’s new population-boosting clause in the executive order also says the population and habitat expansion “should be pursued wherever feasible, including habitats outside Core Population Areas.”
Such efforts can boost genetic connectivity among populations, an important element in conservation biology.
“Where we can get better habitat … look at those opportunities and pursue them,” Budd said of the proposal. “We’re not trying to limit the species to only the areas they currently exist.”
Wyoming’s sage grouse team, working together for more than a decade, is a model of how endangered species conservation should work, Rutledge said. Divides remain and critics still argue that some Wyoming protections — the distance from a permanent breeding ground or lek that drill rigs may approach, for example — are lacking.
Nevertheless, “here we are in a deeply red state with a wide array of interests coming to focus on a singular interest,” Rutledge said. In his 50 years of conservation work, the Wyoming team has undertaken the most effective effort at protecting an imperiled species that he has seen, he said.
For Budd, team members showing respect is a hallmark of the group.
“It’s not an acrimonious process,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of people from different walks of life who didn’t think they could work together.”