State group explains process behind proposed sage grouse protections
The process to revise what areas of the state are designated as core areas for the protection of sage grouse is very much a work in progress, and a lot of work is yet to be done.
This was the message the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) tried to get across during a meeting in Lander during the second week of July.
When the proposed revisions to sage grouse core areas were released to the public, many ranchers were upset because of the perceived lack of transparency and communication on a decision which would potentially affect their future revenues.
There are restrictions on what can be done on properties within core areas. This can make a company shy away from drilling an oil well on a ranch that’s in this designation. For many ranchers, the revenue from leases they have with energy companies supplements their income.
The proposed revisions included labeling thousands of acres in Campbell County as core areas, including ranches west of Highway 50 and also on both sides of Interstate 90 in the Western part of Campbell County, near the Johnson County line.
This upset many local ranchers who weren’t alerted their land was in a proposed core area.
“We didn’t do a good job, I’ll accept it,” said Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and chairman of SGIT.
He pointed out a lot of work remains to be done before a final decision is reached.
“We’re not anywhere near a decision,” he said.
He noted the group believes existing leases ranchers have should be honored, whether they’re for oil and gas or renewable energy. Any coming changes would not be retroactive, he added, because “it’s not fair to tell the landowner, you have a lease, but you can’t act on it.”
“If you have a lease now, it would be grandfathered in,” he said. “You’d have the right to develop renewables based on the lease. This may or may not make the core go away.”
Budd reiterated the energy industry and ranchers have been good partners in this, and the goal is not to try to protect every sage grouse. Instead, the focus is on protecting areas with the highest densities of sage grouse, as well as maintaining Wyoming’s economy.
Getting ahead of
the federal government
The state is going through this process to try to get ahead of changes coming from the federal government.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering changing its resource management plan “to account for new scientific information and changing conditions accelerated by the effects of climate change and to address continued declines in sage grouse populations and loss of habitat,” according to its website.
As part of this change, BLM is updating its sage grouse habitat map. In the past, BLM was part of Wyoming’s mapping process and incorporated the state’s sage grouse core area map into its plan.
Because of limitations set by the National Environmental Policy Act, the BLM is not accepting public comment or stakeholder input at this time.
The worry is there will be a push to get the sage grouse listed as an endangered species.
Angi Bruce, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and a member of SGIT, said if it seems the process has been moving very quickly, it’s because it has.
“We had a very abbreviated timeframe to get this done,” she said. “We set up a plan and jumped into it as fast as we could. We’re fortunate the BLM is slow on their end.”
Gov. Mark Gordon extended the public comment period to seek additional comment on the core area map revisions proposed by SGIT to 5 p.m. July 28. The old deadline had been June 28.
There will be additional informational meetings to talk to landowners and stakeholders before the public comment period closes. When the final map is completed and presented, the governor will make a final decision.
The state’s going through this process to avoid overreach by the federal government, Bruce said.
“This is why we’re here today,” she said. “So the state can remain in control.”
If Wyoming does nothing, the worry is sage grouse will be listed as an endangered species. If this happens, it would apply to the historic range of the sage grouse, which includes all 23 counties in Wyoming, as well as anywhere sage grouse has been known to live, Budd said.
“The unprecedented scale is what’s daunting – it’s the entire West,” Budd said.
A long history
with sage grouse
In 1998, there were petitions to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. In 1999, the state created a management plan for sage grouse. In 2005, it was determined sage grouse were not warranted to be listed as an endangered species.
“In 2007, the drums were beating again,” Budd said.
Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal had a summit in Casper to figure out how to deal with the issue. In 2008, SGIT was formed. Since then, governors have issued executive orders and maps have been redrawn.
Now, with the federal government potentially trying to take over conservation efforts of sage grouse in Wyoming, the state is trying to get ahead.
Budd said a subgroup of SGIT was appointed to evaluate core areas in Wyoming and make adjustments where needed, based on biological data. A map was drafted, and it went out to local working groups across the state for revisions.
And now, the people are getting involved.
“Even though the process may not be perfect, we’re trying to have involvement and trying to incorporate everyone,” Bruce said.
Jonathan Gallardo is a general assignment reporter in Wyoming. This article was originally published via Wyoming News on July 12.