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Sage grouse winter habitat in limbo

Federal officials will know in two weeks who will protest a plan to preserve sage grouse habitat across 10 western states, including Wyoming where a critical winter strategy remains undeveloped.

Bob Budd, head of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, hailed as “epic” the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service’s recently completed update of land management and conservation measures across 19.8 million acres in Wyoming. Considered the largest conservation effort ever undertaken in the U.S., the plans designate 8.3 million acres in Wyoming as priority habitat where destroying sagebrush would be limited or banned. Of that, 1.2 million acres would be “sagebrush focal areas” essential to the species’ survival.

“Wyoming has been at this for more than a decade,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said during the unveiling of the conservation initiative last month in Cheyenne. “Some will say these plans don’t go far enough … I will say these plans are grounded in sound science, the best available science.”

The plan for Wyoming and the other states would also reduce the threat of rangeland fire. Wildfire is one of the greatest threats to greater sage grouse, in part because of the increasing invasion of flammable cheatgrass, which replaces sagebrush in burned areas.

The goal of the conservation plans is to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that measures are in place to stop the bird’s decline. If that agency agrees, it would no longer consider the greater sage grouse warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act — a determination the Fish and Wildlife Service must make by the end of September.

This map outlines BLM and Forest Service priority habitat in red. Priority habitat will get the most attention for greater sage grouse conservation in six BLM districts and three national forest units in Wyoming. (BLM)

This map outlines BLM and Forest Service priority habitat in red. Priority habitat will get the most attention for greater sage grouse conservation in six BLM districts and three national forest units in Wyoming. (BLM)

The effort is as much about those who make their livings in the sagebrush sea as it is about the greater sage grouse. “These plans do not impact valid existing rights,” Jewell said. Oil and gas investors who have leased federal property for development won’t be denied that opportunity, an essential element for Gov. Matt Mead (R).

“We want to make sure we continue to have a strong economy,” Mead said during the unveiling. “On the other side … we have to find this sweet spot that we call balance that’s so hard to find.”

If the grouse were listed, Wyoming would stand to lose nearly 4,000 jobs, more than 1,600 of those in oil and gas alone, according to David Willms and Anne Alexander. They outlined the potential impact of an endangered species listing in a 2014 article in Wyoming Law Review. The analysis applied to Wyoming’s core grouse areas only.

“The state could lose $135 million in direct labor income and over $255 million in total labor income,” the article said. “Associated with these losses, the State stands to lose nearly $30 million in severance tax revenues and over $3.6 million in state sales and use taxes annually.”

Politics at play

In part because of those stakes and despite Fish and Wildlife’s September deadline, political efforts in Washington, D.C. seek to prevent a listing, regardless of biology. Wyoming’s Congressional delegation backed one delay last year. They proposed a bill that would delay any listing for years with the stated purpose of allowing state conservation plans to run their courses. Congress has not passed the measure. A separate FY 2015 budget rider prevents implementing any listing decision for the bird for now. But that prohibition would expire with adoption of the FY 2016 budget, expected this fall.

The most recent Washington D.C. politicking that would prohibit federal protection argues that the greater sage grouse — about the size of a chicken — would endanger U.S. military readiness if it were listed. President Obama has signaled disdain for that effort.

The military funding bill “includes non-germane provisions, such as those undermining the Endangered Species Act, that have nothing to do with national defense,” an administration policy statement issued last month said. “If this bill were presented to the President, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the President that he veto it,” the statement said.

While the political wrangling continues, Fish and Wildlife continues with its task. It will decide on the grouse’s status in September, regardless of whether a law blocks the agency from actually taking action to preserve the bird.

This map was included in a draft BLM study for greater sage grouse conservation across much of Wyoming, but was removed in the final version. It depicted "regional winter habitat" in dark blue at the proposed NPL gas field just south of Pinedale. (BLM)

This map was included in a draft BLM study for greater sage grouse conservation across much of Wyoming, but was removed in the final version. It depicted “regional winter habitat” in dark blue at the proposed NPL gas field just south of Pinedale. (BLM)

Wyoming and Jewell’s Department of Interior— parent agency of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — appear united over greater sage grouse conservation. However, questions remain regarding how to protect a winter concentration area in Sublette County where 1,500 to 2,000 birds flock. There and nearby, Jonah Energy has proposed drilling 3,500 wells in the Normally Pressured Lance field.

As the federal government prepared its most recent Wyoming plans, some industry representatives protested one map that depicted winter habitat across much of the NPL and other parts of the state. The map was too general and unsupported, critics said. The BLM deleted the map from the final plan that covers six Wyoming BLM districts and three national forest units.

This occurred even though the Environmental Protection Agency wrote it was “concerned” that the BLM plans “may not fully protect substantial winter habitat.” Now, the federal government will make its decision in September based on assurances in Gov. Mead’s Greater Sage Grouse Executive order that Wyoming will study and impose winter habitat protections.

Winter protections tailored to proposed gas field

Budd’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team had an opportunity to protect the winter concentration area this spring by extending the state’s core-area protection. That move would have essentially cut Jonah’s proposed drilling plan by three-quarters. Instead, Budd has reactivated a SGIT sub-group that will address the site-specific winter conflict.

Budd’s team’s work won’t be completed by Fish and Wildlife’s September deadline. But that shouldn’t worry the federal agency, Budd said. Wyoming and Jonah have promised no drilling in the NPL-area winter concentration areas until the state develops standards for protecting grouse there.

“We vetted this with [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,]” Budd said last week. “They were very happy with what we did.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Wyoming field supervisor Mark Sattelberg sits on SGIT’s winter concentration group and said his agency is keenly aware of the NPL conflict. “That’s one area we are watching — we feel it’s very important,” he said last week. “We are happy Jonah Energy has agreed to not do any development there until SGIT can come up with recommendations.”

“We don’t have any assurances now,” Sattelberg said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re paying attention. The state and SGIT [have] always been responsive to our concerns. Our assumption is what they come up with will be adequate in the end.”

Habitat, structures and human presence are key elements in winter protection, Sattelberg said. There’s some literature that defines winter habitat and the characteristics that make it valuable, including height of sagebrush and depth of snow. What effect structures have on wintering birds — whether greater sage grouse would avoid a shed or fence, for example — are largely unknown.

“We need to understand what the tolerances are,” Budd said. Disturbance by people is a big worry. “Too much human presence is the issue.”

One proposal is to restrict activities in winter concentration areas from December 1 to March 14. Exactly what such stipulations would entail still is up in the air, however.

“I don’t know what they’re going to say,” Budd said, but he offered a guess. “Let’s say NPL is the winter concentration area and human presence is the issue. From December through March, you say ‘No human presence.’” The aim is that “you don’t provide the disturbing factor when the habitat is needed.”

Wyoming's Sage Grouse Implementation Team recommended that the governor's core-area map be updated with additions in blue and tan and deletions in red. Gov. Mead is expected to act on the recommendation in coming weeks. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team recommended that the governor’s core-area map be updated with additions in blue and tan and deletions in red. Gov. Matt Mead is expected to act on the recommendation in coming weeks. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Budd and Sattelberg agree greater sage grouse protection in winter is unfinished business in Wyoming, but that the Wyoming plan could satisfy the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Is there a tiny shred of risk that we throw our hands in the air and say ‘develop it all?’” Budd asked. That risk, he said, “is tiny.”

“I don’t think anybody on the existing team is going to do that,” the SGIT leader said. If the winter study group proposed ineffective protections, Sattelberg would be there to disagree. An ineffective rule, “that’s not going to go anywhere,” Budd said.

Wyoming plan an Achilles heel?

Despite the positive proclamations by Jewell, Mead, Budd and others at the unveiling of the Wyoming and national plans last month, several conservation groups disagree the protections will be adequate. They have slightly less than two weeks to protest to the BLM and Forest Service.

Western Watersheds Project, a group dedicated to removing grazing from public lands, criticized Jewell for not immediately addressing that issue. “It’s disappointing that Secretary Jewell can’t look the livestock industry in the face and say, ‘Yes, this is a big part of the problem,'” Executive Director Travis Bruner said in a statement. “What’s the point in undertaking such a huge process as the current plans without addressing the most widespread threat to sage-grouse in a meaningful way?” he asked. It’s well established that greater sage grouse need seven inches of grass to hide in and are trampled by sheep and cows, he said, calling the plans a “damning compromise.”

Wyoming is the “Achilles’ heel” of federal conservation efforts, according to WildEarth Guardians. “New plans intended to rescue the sage grouse from the brink of extinction will open the door for a flood of oil and gas fracking, mining, and loosely-managed livestock grazing across the most sensitive sage grouse habitats that remain in Wyoming,” the group said in a statement.

“Secretary Jewell came out to a part of Wyoming where sage grouse have been extinct for decades, to circle her wagons around a crippled Wyoming plan,” the group’s Wyoming biologist, Erik Molvar, wrote. “The Wyoming federal plans adopt all the failures of the state plan to follow the science, and even these weak protections are optional.”

Ranchers have been active in conservation, however. A February, 2015 report by the Natural Resources Conservation Service outlined some of the results.

“A conservation strategy with policy and $250 million in targeted easements is predicted to halt [greater sage grouse] declines to 9-15 percent, cutting anticipated losses by roughly half statewide and nearly two thirds” in core areas, the paper said. Protective easements purchased during the state-federal Sage Grouse Initiative that began in 2010 “have prevented urbanization in some of the most bird abundant and at-risk landscapes in Wyoming,” the report says. “SGI’s $250 million easement campaign in Wyoming is 59 percent complete, and NRCS and partners remain committed to continuing this partnership.”

2,000-mile Saturn road trip started it all

It was back on July 2, 2002, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition from Craig C. Dremann to list Centrocercus urophasianus as endangered across its entire range. It was the first request to protect all American greater sage grouse.

Dremann is a 61-year-old self-taught Redwood City, California range restoration professional who began his business The Reveg Edge when he was in high school. In 1997 he had packed up his ’94 Saturn for a 2,000 mile trip to South Dakota where he was to give classes, including one along the way in Buffalo. The odyssey would become the foundation for his petition.

Dremann decided he would keep a journal — actually about ten 3×5-inch notebooks — documenting the vegetation at one-mile intervals. From his previous work, he knew native grasses and plants were missing from a large part of the sagebrush sea.

Fire is one of the biggest threats to greater sage grouse and the Department of the Interior has prioritized a battle against it on sagebrush rangelands this summer. This map shows the danger fire poses across parts of Wyoming. (BLM)

Fire is one of the biggest threats to greater sage grouse and the Department of the Interior has prioritized a battle against it on sagebrush rangelands this summer. This map shows the danger fire poses across parts of Wyoming. (BLM)

Operating from his odometer, Dremann documented his trip out and back. “I didn’t stop,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “I’m doing this at 60 mph. There’s so few grasses left in the basin, you can ID them easily.”

It may have been easy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to dismiss Dremann’s windshield observations. By his own admission he’s “never gone to college … just learned as I went … read a lot of books and talked to the elders.” But national conservation groups began to join the hue and cry until, in 2004, the agency launched the endangered species investigation that continues today.

Despite years of work, sides remain divided about whether the greater sage grouse will persist. “The sage grouse is just a little, little, tiny piece of this huge Titanic that’s hit the iceberg and is sinking,” Dremann said. “It’s only one person on the deck.” What’s dragging it down is the unraveling of the sagebrush sea ecology.

Budd sees sage grouse conservation in a different light. Wyoming’s efforts are perhaps more akin to rowing a much-needed lifeboat.

“To think our team in Wyoming has been at this for eight years, that the team has not fractured, that the meetings are civil, cordial, fair, based in biological reality…” he said. SGIT has operated through two governors, two presidents, three Interior Department secretaries and two Wyoming Game and Fish Department directors. Its members have seen 25 children or grandchildren born since the group first assembled in 2007.

“We have a system that will work,” Budd said. “It’s a good thing for sage grouse, a good thing for our economy. This is how we should be getting conservation done on a larger scale.”

— Dustin Bleizeffer contributed to this story.

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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 [email protected] or (307) 690-5586. Follow Angus on Twitter at @AngusThuermer

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