Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has ordered a review of greater sage conservation with an eye toward access for energy production. Greater sage grouse in Wyoming have been hurt by oil and gas drilling, and Wyoming's Gov. Matt Mead has warned Zinke against making big changes. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has created a team to review sage grouse conservation efforts and reconsider Western states’ ideas on how to preserve the bird, including captive breeding.

Zinke announced his initiative Wednesday evening. He will issue a secretarial order today that calls for a report in 60 days. At issue are sweeping Bureau of Land Management conservation plans that were instrumental in keeping the bird from being listed as threatened or endangered in 2015.

Western leaders “did not believe they were heard on the issue of sage grouse,” Zinke said in a telephone press conference. They have innovative ideas, he said, including rearing sage grouse in captivity and focusing on population numbers, not habitat. Conservationists say states were heard, grouse breeding is notoriously difficult, and conservation doesn’t need to be radically changed.

Two western leaders had expressed dissatisfaction with Zinke’s review before the announcement. Gov. Matt Mead recently wrote Zinke saying “wholesale changes” to ongoing grouse conservation efforts “are likely not necessary at this time.” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also signed the letter criticizing the focus on population numbers instead of habitat. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision,” the two governors wrote in a report by E&E publishing.

Wyoming’s worries

Mead also has reservations about raising sage grouse in captivity. The Wyoming Legislature passed a law earlier this year allowing such bird farms. Mead said he had “considerable reservations” about the measure but let it become law without his signature. “The scientific community is not hopeful that Greater sage-grouse can be raised in a game farm setting,” Mead wrote Secretary of State Ed Murray.

One prospective grouse farmer — Casper business and oilman Diemer True — said he believes captive raised sage grouse could be used to offset the effects of development in sagebrush country.

Opponents to the Wyoming captive breeding law say it is bad policy that privatizes wildlife and ignores the impacts that egg collection can have on wild grouse populations, among other things. Scientists, conservation groups and others question whether a breeding program would be successful, whether farm-raised birds would survive in the wild, and whether released birds would offset the effects of development. There also are worries captive-raised grouse could spread diseases to wild populations.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department opens a comment period today on draft sage grouse bird farm rules, the agency said in a statement. A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. June 14, at the Game and Fish Office in Casper. There will also be an online meeting at noon, June 14.

Zinke’s goal is to provide states with more flexibility in how they manage and preserve greater sage grouse while keeping the bird from being listed as threatened or endangered. Such flexibility would allow greater access for energy companies and others looking to use or develop the vast Western sagebrush sea. In some places the withdrawal of federal sagebrush lands from mineral extraction would be reconsidered, he said.

“We … want to make sure, first and foremost, we work hand-in-hand with the states,” Zinke said. Preservation also is important. “No party that I know wants the sage grouse to be listed,” he said.

Zinke’s team will examine grouse conservation through the lens of President Trump’s energy independence order that promotes jobs and development, Zinke said. The team also will look at predators’ impacts – including impacts of avian predators like ravens — and diseases such as West Nile virus. Just because grouse have robust habitat doesn’t mean a flock’s health is good, Zinke said.

The secretary talked about an anger in the West over a “heavy handed” federal approach to land management that is “law-enforcement-centric.”

“There is a lot of mistrust,” he said. “A lot of these local communities … just don’t think they’ve had a voice.”

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Reaction to Zinke’s initiative was swift from conservationists. “Secretary Zinke’s order undermines years of bipartisan collaboration to conserve the greater sage-grouse,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement. “It is a slap in the face to Western communities, coalitions, wildlife managers, private landowners, industry groups, and governors in both parties — all who diligently worked to find common ground and a workable solution to prevent the bird from landing on the endangered species list.”

Eric Holst, associate vice president of working lands with the Environmental Defense Fund, also weighed in with a statement. “If the wrong thread of this carefully woven fabric is removed, the whole approach could unravel and the threat of listing will be back on the table,” he wrote. “The ultimate danger of changing the existing framework is not only for the greater sage-grouse, but also for the jobs and industries that benefit from roughly $1 billion a year in economic output driven by sage-grouse habitat in the outdoor recreation and tourism sectors.”

Wyoming Game and Fish draft sage grouse farming rules


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 or (307)...

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