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Sage Grouse

As the process of developing the Greater Sage-Grouse Umbrella CCAA for Ranch Management slowly progresses, many of the document’s partners encourage ranchers to keep it in mind as an option for their operations.
“CCAA” is the acronym for “Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances,” which are designed to protect landowners in the event of a listing of a species under the Endangered Species Act. The umbrella document would cover the entire state, as opposed to individual plans for each participating landowner, and would require certain conservation measures – in the interest of sage grouse – to be completed by those who enroll.
“Each rancher will have a conservation plan, but the overall CCAA will cover the entire state,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Wyoming Field Office Field Supervisor Mark Sattelberg of Cheyenne.
“A rancher can pick and choose which acres he wants to enroll in the program, though we prefer it to be the entire ranch,” continues Sattelberg. “The advantage of a CCAA is that, if the species is listed in the future, ranchers’ management will not have to change, and we won’t require them to do anything more.”
Partners in writing the document include the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Forest Service, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD), the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) and the BLM.
“Our role has been to help draft the document itself, and the real meat is the conservation measures that folks would choose to agree to implement,” says Medicine Bow Conservation District Manager Todd Heward, who represents WACD with the group.
There are 17 conservation measures in the document, including things like infrastructure fragmentation of sage grouse habitat, monocultures of plant communities, concentration of livestock and invasive plant species.
“That’s what took the longest – agreeing on the possible threats associated with agriculture, and what types of conservation measures could be implemented to address those threats,” explains Heward.
Although not everyone agreed on all of the threats and conservation measures, Heward says no concerns were strong enough to stop the document from moving forward, and that some things that were included are needed to make sure the document is strong enough to withstand litigation.
Currently the regional FWS office in Colorado is reviewing the environmental assessment and the document itself, after which it will be released this summer or fall for public review.
“Although we’re having a change of personnel with the program, it’s still high priority in our office to get it done,” says Sattelmeyer of the delays in the document’s release.
Heward emphasizes that the public comment period won’t be a time to look at the draft document and suggest changes, but rather it will be an opportunity for the public to approve or disapprove, and give the reasons for their stance.
“If the document does become final, the role the conservation districts could play is one of education – helping landowners understand what a CCAA is, and if it makes sense for them,” says Heward, adding that there will be some level of monitoring required, which will be the responsibility of the landowner. “They can do it themselves, hire someone to do it, or cooperate with the conservation district to get it done.”
He says conservation districts could also facilitate, or even help draft, ranchers’ conservation plans.
Of the role of the WDA, Agriculture Program Coordinator Justin Williams says his agency will assist landowners in the application process, help with rangeland monitoring, provide mediation in the event of a conflict and look for funding sources.
NRCS Sage Grouse Coordinator Brian Jensen says the CCAA and the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) are two separate programs, but that one of the key components of the SGI is grazing management plans, which will also be a requirement of the CCAA.
“Through SGI we could help producers develop a grazing plan that they could then use to meet the qualification criteria of the CCAA,” says Jensen.
Also, Jensen says another SGI emphasis in common with the CCAA is to avoid fragmentation of sage grouse habitat, and one strategy is conservation easement funding in the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP).
“Ranchers don’t have to be a part of SGI to be in a CCAA, or vice versa,” reminds Jensen. “They’re not one and the same, and we do different things with them, but they dovetail together pretty well, and if a person wants to do a CCAA, they’d be a good candidate for SGI, and vice versa.”
For those ranchers who have already begun individual CCAAs, Heward says that if their document is only for sage grouse, and only for rangelands, the umbrella CCAA will cover it. However, if the individual document includes other species, or other land uses, such as oil and gas development, he says the landowner is better off continuing to develop their independent plan.
“It’s important for landowners to understand that the CCAA is only good if the bird is listed, but once it becomes listed they can’t sign up,” says Heward of the program.
Although he says the CCAA can be good insurance for some landowners, it may not be a good fit for others.
“Landowners certainly need to understand when it does and doesn’t make sense for them. If someone’s ranch is all private land, and they have no federal involvement, a CCAA may not make sense for them,” notes Heward.
Williams says he’d like to remind ranchers that the CCAA concept is voluntary, but he suggests they do their homework and look into it. “Be aware of the possibilities – it may work for some, and not for others,” he comments.
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cody – Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen recently gave a presentation on a topic with which he’s familiar – balancing incomplete science with management.
    “Wildlife managers deal daily with incorporating science into management,” said Christiansen at the early November meeting of the Society for Range Management Wyoming Section, Soil and Water Conservation Society Wyoming Chapter and The Wildlife Society Wyoming Chapter.
    He said it sometimes takes a double dose of objectivity training, which is 180 degrees from sensitivity training.
    “Many of us make decisions with incomplete information on a daily basis,” he continued. “But the more I thought about the topic, I realized the use of incomplete science is worthy of more thoughtful consideration.”
    “Wildlife issues have moved from the sports page to the front page,” he said of its increased attention. “They’ve gone from trivial to critically important, and there’s an increasing trend in using science in the formulation of policy.”
    “With the increased emphasis on science comes a heavy burden – the bar for validity and reliability of information is inching higher, and it’s accompanied by a potential policy shift accompanied by social and economic effects,” he said.
    Christiansen said in this day of diverse stakeholders, each with a different agenda, a higher threshold of proof is required. “Some professional wildlife biologists have data on one side of treat/don’t treat sagebrush debate, while on the other side there are folks just as dedicated, professional and well meaning who have collected data supporting the opposite argument.”
    “While this is one of the most contentious issues in Wyoming in our profession, I see no reasonable course other than to apply the highest standards of science and publish the results to tease out the details of when, how, where and why sagebrush should or shouldn’t be treated,” he said.
    He said another debate with uncertain scientific results is the need for water development in sage grouse habitat. “Some sage grouse local working groups have advocated for or implemented water projects. A southwest Wyoming working group has the unofficial motto of ‘Water is life.’ But there is scant, if any, evidence to suggest water availability is limiting sage grouse.”
    Christiansen noted that not all published reports are created equal, including peer reviewed publications, dissertations and theses, progress reports and popular literature.
    However, he gave a couple examples of what he thinks is the proper way to go about publishing a collection of information without full scientific proof. He cites the first as a recent document focusing on grazing’s influence on sage grouse habitat.
    “To prepare this document I worked with educators and agency people because a document like that has been sorely needed and often requested for years, but research on the direct relationship between livestock grazing and sage grouse was, and is, rare,” he noted.
    He said in the document the researchers acknowledged the uncertainty associated with the relationship between grazing and sage grouse. “There is a statement saying the document resulted from a series of meetings, field trips and peer reviews, and contains a collective understanding of ecosystem function in Wyoming sage grouse habitat.”
    Because of those acknowledgements, Christiansen said the document represents an honest and ethical attempt to provide useful recommendations.
    His second example is wind energy development’s effects on sage grouse. “I’m concerned some folks are emphasizing the uncertain impact of wind development on sage grouse, and failing to acknowledge the growing body of science suggesting significant negative impacts to other lekking grouse species,” he explained. “These results at the very least suggest a cautious and conservative approach, and the burden of proof rests squarely on the shoulders of industry to demonstrate the lack of impact before development.”
    “Unless and until the process includes scientific protocols, all we have is a recipe for conflict, perpetual meetings and the status quo,” he noted. “Surprises are likely, but giving thoughtful consideration to the worst-case scenario is good planning.”
    Of the sage grouse core area concept, Christainsen said there are concerns about connectivity, and he shares those concerns. “Have we set in motion a process for increased fragmentation?” he asked. “As long as political wills remain strong, I’m optimistic the sage grouse population will also remain strong, but how the upcoming governor’s race will affect core areas is anyone’s guess.”
    “Dealing with an evolving map will prove difficult in terms of setting policy and land use planning, but can you imagine the level of development that might have been approved on sensitive sage grouse and other species?” he asked.
    “There are times management actions, recommendations and policy decisions have to be made in the face of uncertainty,” he said. “It is imperative to acknowledge the uncertainty and seek out and apply the best science available.”
    Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Casper – The Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Local Sage Grouse Working Group allocated $126,000 for projects to benefit sage grouse at a meeting in mid-December.  
    During its 2010 session, the Wyoming Legislature approved the Governor’s budget request for $1.2 million to support sage grouse working groups and fund conservation projects benefiting sage grouse and their habitat. This money was divided among the eight local sage grouse working groups in the state to fund and implement projects consistent with local sage grouse conservation plans, and to benefit the species and reduce the likelihood of sage grouse being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
    Projects were evaluated based on consistency with Wyoming’s Core Area management strategy, local working group sage grouse conservation plan, likelihood of success, project readiness, matching funds, multiple species benefits, significance at local/state/regional level, duration of benefits, and adequacy of monitoring.
    Stacey Scott, chairman of the Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Local Sage Grouse Working Group, says a lot of thought went into how the funds were allocated.
    “The group’s biggest priority is habitat, and with a limited amount of money and time we have to target where the best benefits will take place for sage grouse,” he says.
     The working group allocated funds toward the following projects:
•    $26,000 will go toward the North Laramie Range Watershed Restoration Initiative, a project designed to control cheatgrass on 6,870 acres of private, federal and state-owned lands in the Stinking Creek Drainage near Casper. The project will help restore big sagebrush communities to improve habitat for sage grouse. The entire proposed project area falls within the sage grouse core management area in Natrona County.
•    $30,000 was allocated to continue a study of the impacts of wind energy development on sage grouse populations in Carbon County. The goal of the project is to determine the effects of wind energy infrastructure on sage grouse seasonal habitat selection and demography.
•    $50,000 will go toward a cheatgrass control project in Natrona County. The Henderson Draw Cheatgrass Vegetative Treatment project will treat approximately 2,500 acres of BLM lands to benefit sage grouse. Cheatgrass invaded this area – which was good sagebrush habitat – following a wildfire. Three leks occur within or immediately adjacent to the treatment area and most of the area to be treated falls within the Natrona sage grouse core population area, which has been classified as winter habitat for sage grouse.
•    $10,000 will go toward a research project to study the response of sage grouse to treatments in Wyoming Big Sagebrush. The project is under the direction of UW Assistant Professor Jeffrey Beck and is designed to answer questions about the immediate response of sage grouse populations to a variety of habitat treatments in pre-incubation, nesting and early brood-rearing in Wyoming big sagebrush.  
•    $10,000 was allocated to Wyoming Audubon to increase education about sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems. The money will help pay for development of a traveling education trunk containing materials about sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems and will be aligned to state educational standards and guidelines. Education programs will be focused in Natrona, Carbon, Albany, Laramie, Converse and Niobrara counties. The money will also help fund salaries for three community naturalists who will work to deliver these education programs.
    “Many children have no idea about sagebrush ecosystems, so just giving them the basics is very important,” says Scott. “In just over a decade all these kids will be voting and making decisions so it’s important for them to understand the challenges facing sage grouse.”
    Scott says the research projects will provide much-needed information pertaining to sage grouse and the habitats they rely on.
    “We know very little about sagebrush ecosystems, which are very complex. We need to understand them better. Every time I think I know what is going on in these ecosystems I am proven wrong, and it makes me rethink what we’re doing,” he says. “We need to continue to fund habitat improvements and research projects such as these so we can continue to learn, because sage grouse are indicators of the overall health of the sagebrush habitat.”

Casper – The energy sector provides the base of Casper’s economy, and the Casper Area Chamber of Commerce’s Monthly Luncheon looked at the economic impact that sage grouse could have on the state of Wyoming if they are placed on the Endangered Species List. 

During the Jan. 24 luncheon, titled, “Sage Grouse and Wyoming’s Future,” University of Wyoming Director of International Programs Anne Alexander noted that a listing decision could be huge for Wyoming. 

Greater sage grouse were determined to be warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but their listing was precluded by other species. A listing decision will be made after Sept. 30, 2015.

Economy in Wyo

“We decided to look at oil and gas, agriculture and travel and tourism as the three major industries that we thought would be impacted by a sage grouse listing,” said Alexander, noting that those are the top three industries in Wyoming’s economy. “The total size of Wyoming’s economy is $38.4 billion as of a few years ago.”

Of that, roughly one-third of the economic impact comes from the energy industry. Agriculture provided $1 billion, and travel and tourism contributed $3.1 billion.

“These are the three industries that would be impacted the most from a listing decision,” Alexander mentioned. “That is not to say that others won’t be affected, but we tried to take those into account, as well.”

Listing impacts

“There are many things that would be impacted by an ESA listing,” Alexander continued. “The thing about a listing is that there are no exemptions. It is a species-wide, range-wide impact.”

Despite Wyoming’s progress toward positively affecting sage grouse, a decision to list the sage grouse would result in widespread restrictions. 

State control over wildlife also allows more flexible, responsive management, she mentioned, noting, “State management of these habitats allows our energy companies to responsibly develop their resources and our producers to maintain control over their private lands. Between the two of them, over $12 billion in economy activity is created.”

Economic estimates

In her analysis, Alexander noted that she looked specifically at core area impacts, and the analysis provided very conservative estimates of impacts. 

“Approximately five percent of the state is in the current core area,” she said. “If there was a listing decision, it would be a much greater area that is impacted. These are incredibly conservative estimates.”

In the oil and gas industry, Alexander noted that a direct loss of 1,600 jobs would occur. When considering all the indirect jobs lost, nearly 4,000 jobs are at stake.

“Direct income loss would be $135 million in just wage income,” she continued. “Total wage income, which includes indirect loss of jobs, across the state would be $255 million annually.”

Severance tax revenue, plus sales and use tax revenue losses, would equate to $35 million. 

“These are very conservative numbers,” she added. 

In agriculture, losses for the core area would equate to $2 million each year, with the related sectors contributing losses for a total of $9 million. 

Tourism and wildlife

“If we look at travel and tourism, the numbers are also significant,” Alexander commented. “Travel and tourism created about 9,500 jobs across all industries.” 

Those jobs provide $75 million in state and local taxes. 

“The thriving wildlife population is key to continued economic success and lower unemployment. Tourism provides a lot of steady, stable revenue,” she says. “The other thing to keep in mind is the impact to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Their revenue and management would be impacted by fewer hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers, fewer permits sold and less money to manage all the wildlife species within their purview.”

Alexander emphasized that BLM also performed an analysis resulting in similar numbers. 

Monumental potential

“Putting management of sage grouse critical habitat out of state control would be incredibly impactful – and pretty disastrous – for the Wyoming economy,” Alexander added. “Wyoming has probably staved off a lot of early impacts with their current management strategy.”

Referencing the spotted owl and Washington’s timber industry, Alexander continued, “The timber industry accounted for one percent of jobs in Washington state. When the spotted owl was listed, it cost the economy $1 billion – and that was only one percent of the economy and employment. Imagine the impacts from a loss of one-third of the economy.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Right before the close of 2017, on Dec. 29, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued updated policy statements designed to maintain healthy sagebrush habitat in the West while also continuing to allow multiple use and influencing local economic development.

The six Instruction Memoranda (IM) provide guidance to BLM staff and managers for implementing sage grouse habitat management plans at the local level.

“The updated policies are in response to concerns raised by the states, local partners and our own field staff,” said Brian Steed, BLM’s deputy director for programs and policy.  “They were developed from the ground up with the goal of improving sagebrush habitat while permitting measured economic and recreational activity.”

Overview

The six documents provide guidance for oil and gas leasing and development, livestock grazing leasing and permitting, and evaluating the health of sagebrush habitat. Three of the IMs revise memos issued in 2016, two supersede guidance from 2016, and the final document is a new IM that directs field staff in using the habitat objective stable in sage grouse management plans.

The IMs, which were developed with input and consultation from the Governor’s offices in 11 western states and built on reviews of Greater sage grouse plans and policies, as director by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

The IMs also reinforce the importance of land health standards, which are established in regulation for evaluating all BLM-managed public lands, those with habitat and those without. 

BLM says, “While policy on land health evaluation has not changed, clarification in the policy for prioritizing grazing permit renewal responds to concerns of several states that earlier guidance could be interpreted as making the presence of sage grouse habitat the primary or sole factor to consider in permit and leasing evaluations.”

Local explanation

Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and co-chair of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, said, “These IMs are mainly to clarify things that were unclear in the previous plans.”

He continued, “For the ag industry, there were real concerns about the misinterpretation and misapplication of the habitat tables. We think this is a move in the right direction to applying them correctly.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, added specifically, “The thing that bothered us most was Table 2.2 on stubble height. In the IMs, they make it very clear stubble height is not the basis of grazing decisions. Instead, it is to inform the process, but decisions are to be made based on standards for healthy rangelands, as in the past.”

Rather, the IMs emphasize that grazing plan decisions can be informed by the habitat assessment frame work for sage grouse, but “it doesn’t directly drive decisions,” Magagna explained.

“Overall, the IMs are very good for Wyoming,” Magagna said.

Plan amendments

While the IMs have made significant progress, according to Budd and Magagna, both note that land use plan amendments are necessary for the future. Those changes are still being pursued in a parallel track.

Magagna explained BLM hired a private contractor to analyze comments, with direction to report back by Dec. 31. The next step is development of proposed amendments and public input, a process which could take six months to a year or more to complete.

“In the meantime, these IMs should help to clarify the fact that objectives for sage grouse are not what grazing permits should be solely renewed by,” he said.

Magagna commented, “I’m very pleased with the IMs. They go about as far as BLM could go and defend their actions, short of plan amendments.”
The interim actions, continued Magagna, take some of the burden off producers for the BLM planning process.

Additionally, Budd said, “In Wyoming, with our sage grouse plans and what we have been doing, we shouldn’t see too much of an impact.”

IMs are generally issued for three years, which allows BLM to review their effectiveness, and if needed, make changes. The IMs issued in December will be BLM policy through September 2021.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article, which was written from press releases and Roundup interviews, to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..