Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication.

Wyoming’s recently elected Republican governor will uphold a key wildlife conservation strategy initiated by his Democratic predecessor, effectively continuing restrictions on development around greater sage grouse habitat.

Gov. Matt Mead (R) issued an executive order last week that essentially maintains 15 million acres of “core sage grouse areas” established under a 2008 directive by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) and revised last summer by a task force appointed by the former governor.

The “core area” strategy is designed mostly to protect sage grouse breeding grounds called “leks,” where even minor disruptions can cause the birds to flee their nests. Under the policy, any development within a 4-mile radius of a lek cannot disturb more than 5 percent of the total surface area.

Some were concerned that when Freudenthal left office in January, Mead might abandon the core area strategy that has been endorsed by wildlife advocacy groups and federal regulators.

“I believe this effort, which started almost a decade ago, represents the most significant conservation measure ever undertaken by a state in support of protecting a species,” Mead said in a statement. “There is an active effort to have the sage grouse listed [as a federally protected species], but this order reflects a state effort to develop a compromise acceptable to all sides.”

Mead’s order directs that the core areas “should not be altered” for at least five years. He also upheld a separate Freudenthal order establishing a designated corridor for new electricity transmission lines through southern Wyoming that limits impacts to sage grouse habitat.

“It’s great news,” said Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming and a member of the task force that drew the original core area boundaries. “We’ve got those who will claim this is not enough, but you show me anywhere else in the world where they’ve got a 5 percent disturbance limit on 15 million acres?”

Protecting greater sage grouse has become a top priority in Wyoming after the Fish and Wildlife Service last year designated the bird a “candidate” for Endangered Species Act protection. FWS has praised the core area strategy, noting that more than half the world’s remaining grouse reside in Wyoming, and roughly 80 percent of those birds live in a core area.

In a statement, Mead said he would continue the Freudenthal policy, but added: “This is not an action I take lightly or without reservation.”

But, he added, abandoning the “core areas” policy could trigger an ESA listing, which in turn would usher in new land-use restrictions that “could cripple the economy of our state.”

However, as a goodwill gesture to developers that are directly affected by the sage grouse policy, Mead called for devising incentives for those firms that pursue development projects outside core sage grouse areas. The order also adds flexibility if future research suggests grouse are less sensitive to development than currently thought.

Mixed reviews

By tweaking the order, Mead hopes to continue Wyoming’s proactive efforts on behalf of grouse without alienating the state’s oil and gas and renewable energy sectors, both of which face development obstacles as they navigate around grouse-rich areas.

Such challenges have been particularly hard for the state’s burgeoning wind-power industry, which has homed in on southern Wyoming as a development hot spot. While Wyoming has some of the nation’s greatest wind resources, the state currently ranks only 10th for total installed wind power capacity, at 1,400 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Adding to that number will require carefully working around the core grouse areas.

But Mead’s order seeks to reassure developers that the current policy could change as more is learned about the effects of wind farms on grouse. “Wind development is not recommended in sage-grouse core areas,” according to the order, “but will he reevaluated on a continuous basis as new science, information and data emerges.

Cheryl Riley, executive director of the Wyoming Power Producers Coalition, a Cheyenne-based trade group of independent wind developers, said she welcomed that provision. “If the science can show that sage grouse and wind energy are compatible, it won’t necessarily preclude [future] wind power development in the core areas,” Riley said.

But others questioned the wisdom of extending a policy that they believe doesn’t go far enough to protect grouse.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., said the core areas policy has too many loopholes that allow development to encroach upon grouse habitat.

For example, Molvar said the state has allowed oil, natural gas and wind developers to plan and build projects in core areas, and to mitigate the impacts by purchasing other land that is only of marginal value to the grouse. This in essence allows the state to redraw the boundaries of the core areas to accommodate development.

“Every time a major industrial project is proposed for a core area habitat, the core area boundaries get magically shifted so those core area stipulations do not apply,” Molvar said. “If they keep shifting the boundaries of the core areas every time a major industrial project is proposed, then the core area protections don’t mean very much.”

But Renny MacKay, a spokesman for Mead, said the state is not trying to alter the core boundaries, nor is it trying to accommodate energy developers by giving away critical grouse habitat. Rather, the state is trying to balance the needs of developers and landowners with the need to protect the grouse.

“This isn’t the perfect plan,” MacKay said of the core area strategy. “It’s hard on everyone. There are people on all sides who are struggling with it.”

Click here to read Mead’s executive order.

Scott Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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