Albert Sommers, irrigating pastures of his ranch along the Green River, wonders what effect a federal decision to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act might have on the viability of his ranch, which counts on federal rangeland to operate. "I've done my part," he said, referring to a conservation easement placed on his family's property near Pinedale. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. / WyoFile)

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wants the federal government to flip the status of the sage grouse so it is not a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Wyoming strives to convince the federal government that its efforts to preserve sage grouse are enough to keep the bird off the list of endangered species. Federal protection worries many in the state who use the sagebrush country to make a living.
(Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish)

Mead last week co-sponsored a resolution adopted by Western Governors’ Association that says states’ own conservation plans should lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to presume Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing “is not warranted” for the dandyishly plumed bird. Today, the federal agency says the grouse is a “candidate” species that is warranted for protection under the act but “precluded” because of other priorities and funding.

The resolution Mead and other governors endorsed calls for “all reasonable management efforts” to save the grouse and anticipates the federal government still playing a role. Federal agencies would review programs, consult with states and ultimately endorse their plans, according to the resolution about “Species of concern and candidate species.”

The governors’ latest action underscores the focused attention being paid to sage grouse as Fish and Wildlife prepares to meet a September 2015 legal deadline on whether to put the bird under federal protection. At stake, some believe, are Wyoming’s energy and agriculture industries that could be hog-tied by rules, regulations and restrictions if the sage grouse became an endangered species.

Efforts to prevent such a listing are widespread. U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi last month co-sponsored a bill that would prevent sage grouse from being protected by the ESA, but, like the western governors’ resolution, requires feds to work with states on states’ own grouse programs.

Eight regional working groups in cooperation with Wyoming Game and Fish strive under the auspices of the statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) to control fires, flag fences, conserve open space and even poison predating ravens. Meantime, Fish and Wildlife and Wyoming agencies have forged an agreement that Equality State ranchers can sign to ensure their activities are tailored to help grouse. In exchange for signing a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) ranchers would be largely immune from future regulation.

Whether Wyoming and other states, within the next year, can convince the Fish and Wildlife Service they can save the grouse is an open question. Bob Budd, director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust Fund and chairman of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team thinks it’s possible.

“I share skepticism on many things,” he said, “but not on the time-frame to making our case. I think we’ve been very diligent. We’ve seen some results.”

Nervous on the range

The implications of the pending federal decision are real to rancher and state Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) as he splashes his way across his pastures on the Green River outside Pinedale, a shovel over his shoulder for irrigating. Shoshone Indians called the waterway Seedskadee-agie, river of the prairie hen, because of the abundance of grouse there.

“I am nervous,” Sommers said, “not so much for my private land. It’s more about what regulations the Fish and Wildlife Service will make on federal land agencies with regard to grazing.”

In coming weeks, Sommers’ cattle will mosey upriver as part of the historic Green River Drift, a cattle drive that involves thousands of head. Each year they trail from Sublette ranches to BLM and Forest Service land near Union Pass.

Ranchers are wary that a the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might list the sage grouse as threatened or endangered, leading to limitations on grazing on federal lands like this BLM allotment in Sublette County. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. / WyoFile)

“I’m optimistic if the Fish and Wildlife Service lists [the grouse], they will manage it in a way that doesn’t upset the Western U.S.,” Sommers said. “You don’t want to wreck every ranch. It wouldn’t make any sense for the bird.”

Sommers’ jitters are reflected state-wide, as witnessed by a 2012 study for Sublette County of what would happen to ranchers should the BLM impose grazing restrictions sought by some conservationists. It estimated a loss of about 300 jobs and up to $27 million annually in Sublette County and part of Lincoln County.

“Most likely ranch land would be divided into smaller sections which is detrimental to wildlife habitat as well as the ranching customs of Sublette County,” the study said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service hopes its umbrella CCAA policy, adopted this spring, would encourage ranchers to undertake grouse-friendly practices. In exchange, they would be exempt from stringent rules should the grouse earn federal protection. Developed with six other federal and state agencies, the 77-page document outlines conservation measures and monitoring that ranchers would have to agree to in return for immunity for the loss of a limited number of birds.

Sommers is uncertain he would enter into such an agreement, perhaps mainly because his property already is covered by a conservation easement that limits development. A CCAA can require a host of measures, including eliminating artificial nesting sites for avian predators and preserving sagebrush, things he already does.

“We have agreed not to manipulate any sagebrush on the ranch,” unless approved by Wyoming Game and Fish, Sommers said. He also monitors grass height so as to “graze responsibly,” and takes other measures.

“I’m doing my part,” he said.

Where deer and antelope and drillers play

Ranchers’ fate may not be in their own hands, however. Where cattle don’t roam, oil and gas developers do.

The Pinedale Anticline gas field next to Sommers’ ranch is approved for 4,399 wells on 600 pads across 198,000 acres, according to BLM information. The Jonah Field farther south will have 6,000 wells across 21,000 acres. The BLM is working to approve a plan for the Normally Pressured Lance (NPL) field even farther south, a place where tagged sage grouse have been tracked in winter.

Industry is seeking to minimize its footprint across the 141,000 acres of the NPL field. Development is expected on 4.7 percent of the landscape, according to BLM documents. Up to 3,500 wells would be drilled on 6,625 disturbed acres. In Wyoming’s designated core sage grouse areas, drilling would be limited to one 18-acre well pad per 640 acres, with up to 64 wells per pad.

The core area strategy is the heart of Wyoming’s grouse conservation. It designates zones in the heart of grouse country where the bird’s needs are given extra protection. Grouse-enhancing measures are to be focused on them and new developments are to receive acute review with the grouse in mind.

It’s uncertain whether plans limiting drilling footprints in the NPL will be good enough for the grouse. A 2013 study by the Wyoming Chapter of the Wildlife Society  mapped grouse winter concentration areas in the gas field. Biologists found tagged sage grouse from core areas flocking to the NPL for winter refuge.

A successful grouse nest near Daniel fledged a family of five grouse in 2004. Such nests are subject to plundering by ravens and other predators, and can be disrupted by cattle and oil and gas development. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. / WyoFile)

Among other things, the study concluded that human activity in winter was a key factor in whether sage grouse would use nearby areas. The Wildlife Society study proposed “that human activities associated with production and maintenance activities be reconsidered.” However, it’s unlikely a producing gas field would be shuttered part of the year.

“You can’t do that,” Budd said. “How do you just shut down production for an entire winter?”

committee under SGIT considering grouse winter use of the NPL field underscored industry difficulties. “The suggestion that an oil and gas field have a timing stipulation for the winter period which specifies no human activity is not a practical manner to produce natural gas and oil and that some level of maintenance of wells should be allowed,” the committee said.

Recognizing the effects federal grouse protection would have on oil and gas industry, Paul Ulrich of Jonah Energy made the same point last month at Gov. Mead’s energy summit in Casper. He agreed that preserving habitat is key.

Nevertheless, “we still require flexibility,” he said of oil and gas operators. “Overly restrictive regulations will stifle the industry.”

Efforts so far to save grouse amount to picking the low-hanging fruit, Matt Holloran told participants at the energy summit. A senior consultant and principal with Wyoming Wildlife Consultants, LLC, he wrote his 2005 University of Wyoming PhD thesis on grouse and energy development.

“What we are not doing, … is not addressing the range-wide degradation that has occurred in the sagebrush,” Holloran said. “It may have been initiated over 100 years ago, but you don’t see major efforts at trying to enhance a degraded system.”

Success should be measured in acres, not dollars spent, Budd told the summit. “That’s what we need to do, is give the birds a place to live.”

They kill ravens?

If oil and gas activity can’t be stopped, ravens that raid grouse nests and have proliferated with development can be. U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services years ago began destroying raven nests on human infrastructure like windmills.

Raven numbers are artificially high in sagebrush country due to residential and industrial development. To help grouse, raven nests on human infrastructure are being destroyed and poison distributed at southwest Wyoming landfills to keep the number of avian predators down. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.)

What’s being targeted is the “artificial” growth of the population said Tom Christiansen, a sage grouse expert with Wyoming Game and Fish in Green River. “We’re not trying to have all ravens removed from the landscape,” he said.

Federal Wildlife Services started poisoning ravens in February 2013, targeting seven landfill sites in southwest Wyoming. “At the request of WGFD and others for the protection of sage-grouse and to alleviate roosting problems at industrial sites,” Wildlife Services used the poison DRC-1339, according to a 2014 Upper Green River Conservation Plan amendment.

Workers sighted more than 300 ravens (Corvus corax) at the Big Piney landfill that winter before repeatedly setting out the poison. Ravens are protected by the Migratory Bird Act and special permission is required from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill them.

“Unfortunately, the late start in applying the avicide required application of the avicide into the early spring after birds began to disperse making it unclear at what level the difference in populations post treatment could be attributed to the application,” the above referenced report said. “However, 120 bird carcasses were recovered from roost sites in Sublette County … a minimum reduction in population of 40%.”

Poisoning was set to resume last winter, but results were not included in the 2014 Upper Green River Conservation Plan Amendment.

How many are left?

If one needs reminding that grouse conservation has popular support, a petition by the Pew Charitable Trusts would do that. Noting ongoing revisions of BLM management plans, the petition has garnered 146,739 signatures urging president Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell “to protect the remaining healthy sagebrush habitat across our public lands for the greater sage-grouse and other wildlife.”

Because only 138 sage grouse are left in Canada, the Calgary Zoo began a captive breeding program that last week hatched its first 11 grouse chicks. (Calgary Zoo)

What chance is there that sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) would go extinct? In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 208,000 greater sage grouse in Wyoming across 43 million acres of sagebrush habitat, according to the Wyoming umbrella CCAA. That means one grouse for every 207 acres of sagebrush.

A critical measure of health is the number of male grouse seen each spring on mating grounds, or leks. A 2013 summary of population estimates from lek monitoring in a “job completion report” by Christiansen paints a roller-coaster ride.

“There has been a long-term decline, a mid-term increase and short-term decline in the statewide sage-grouse population,” he wrote. Sage grouse have declined by 30 percent since 1985, federal officials believe. At 582,658, Wyoming’s human population may exceed that of the sage grouse nationwide.

Just across the border in Canada, sage grouse are in peril. No more than 138 greater sage grouse remain in the wild in that entire country, according information from the Calgary Zoo. The Canadian government issued an emergency order to prevent extinction.

Last week, the zoo hatched 11 grouse from eggs taken from the wild. It is the first step of a captive breeding program that demonstrates “immediate action to respond to the species’ imminent risk of extinction in Canada,” Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, head of conservation & research at the zoo said in a statement.

Sen. Enzi believes Wyoming has “worked tirelessly with stakeholders over many years,” to protect grouse. “These efforts have already proven that conservation plans created by states, and local groups, work better to protect habitat and increase sage grouse population than top-down federal plans,” he said in a statement when introducing his bill.

But not all states are on the task of sage grouse conservation, Budd said at last month’s governor’s energy summit.

“A listing could come because one state has only 5 percent of the range but does nothing,” he said. “Montana only came to the game one and a half years ago, and the wild card out there is Colorado.”

The American Bird Conservancy supports state conservation efforts, said Steve Holmer, the group’s senior policy advisor. It sees shortcomings, however. Core-area maps were gerrymandered, he said.

A map shows where researchers tagged grouse in core areas and how they ended up flocking to the Normally Pressured Lance gas field in the winter. (Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society — click to enlarge)

“A bunch of important stuff got excluded,” Holmer said. “The Wyoming map wasn’t good for that reason. We need firm zoning,” that would keep destructive practices out of sage grouse country and provide better protection for the bird.

Wyoming’s plan “will reduce decline but it will not stop decline,” he said. “The overall standards aren’t quite strong enough.”

“We’re just asking for a little bit more,” Holmer said, “a Wyoming-plus strategy.”

State control of grouse and their habitat ignores a larger audience than the sage grouse attracts, Holmer said. “We think the American people should have a fair say in how the lands are managed, not just the people … or economic interests … in that state.”

Budd, who is preparing to dole out another $1 million in grants for sage grouse work at the SGIT’s June 24 meeting in Casper, is seeking to prove Wyoming’s case. This may be his last chance.

“We all know this is a critical year,” he said.

– Dustin Bleizeffer contributed to this story.

 

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

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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  1. I am delighted that Angus Thuermer is joining with Dustin in writing on habitat and wildlife matters. The two of them should help keep the powers that be in line.

  2. I am not sure how many hunters still participate, but I find it ironic the grouse is about to be listed under the ESA yet the WG&FD still has a hunting season? If it is the G&F’s responsibility to manage wildlife in Wyoming (albeit not always very effectively) you would think the powers that be would take steps to better protect the population we do have left.