During last week’s announcement that greater sage grouse would not be a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, officials acknowledged significant contributions by Wyoming. “I have to point out the leadership we saw from the State of Wyoming,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
Here are five reasons why Wyoming deserves credit for its efforts in conserving greater sage grouse. Following that are five reasons to worry about the fate of the bird.
- In 2008 Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) issued the first executive order for the conservation of greater sage grouse. The order set up a framework to guide state agencies when considering approval of activities requiring state permits. The order evolved into the core-area strategy that designated zones where disturbance is limited to 5 percent per square mile. Gov. Matt Mead (R) has since issued his own order, modified several times.
- Wyoming holds 38.9 percent of the world’s greater sage grouse. Wyoming Game and Fish Department workers and their partners visited more than 1,600 sage grouse leks, or breeding grounds, this spring. They counted more than 35,800 male grouse. Biologists estimate 3 to 4.5 hens per male, which would put Wyoming’s population between 107,400 and 161,100, not including populations at 12 percent of the state leks that were not surveyed.
- Gov. Matt Mead did “all the serious heavy lifting,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said at last week’s announcement. At the ceremony, officials also praised Montana for adopting an accelerated grouse conservation program. Montana, with 12 percent of the greater sage grouse population, was an essential participant in the conservation push. “States that are laggards can drag other states down,” said Tim Baker, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s (D) policy advisor for natural resources. “Mead wrote us a letter — ‘We really need you guys to get involved,’” Baker said last fall at a forum sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Baker called Montana’s push “an ambitious effort modeled after the Wyoming approach.”
- Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team recommended changes to Gov. Matt Mead’s executive order after months and months of study, work and consensus-building. A key part of the credibility of the 23-member team grew from its reliance on eight local working groups. Members of those groups, in sometimes-heated debates, updated core-area maps in time for Mead to adopt them and for the federal government to consider before deciding the grouse’s status.
- Wyoming promises to protect grouse in newly documented winter concentration areas. A SGIT subcommittee is charged with studying the winter concentration areas in Sublette County near and in the proposed Normally Pressured Lance Field. That’s where Jonah Energy seeks to drill 3,500 wells across 141,000 acres. Some 1,500 to 2,000 grouse from across Sublette County flock there in the winter. There may be another wintering area near Cody where the SGIT information could also aid conservation.
Five reasons to worry about greater sage grouse.
- Some 16 million acres of priority habitat recommended by BLM and USFWS were stripped from the final federal plans, WildEarth Guardians says. Oil and gas leasing had been suspended for years on much of that habitat, but now it is scheduled to start back up. In Wyoming, “tiny” 0.6-mile buffer distances from breeding leks are far smaller than biologists recommend, the group says. Core areas were gerrymandered to exclude energy development sites, according to WildEarth Guardians.
- Disturbance from grazing hasn’t been adequately acknowledged or mitigated, Western Watersheds Project contends. Critics point to spring grazing as a particular problem, along with other agricultural practices, including erecting and maintaining fences that can kill birds in flight.
- Even with conservation efforts, long-term declines would continue. One study shows Wyoming’s core-area strategy and $250 million in conservation easements would slow greater sage grouse population declines. But losses would continue, amounting to between 9 percent and 15 percent of the Wyoming population, according to a 2013 peer-reviewed paper published in PLOS.
- The core-area or priority habitats will not persist and any plan relying on them is a grand experiment, a recent USGS research paper said. The study examined connections between populations and likened the current distribution to having all one’s eggs in a single basket. Smaller populations may become isolated, an undesirable condition in conservation biology. That’s because federal and state plans, in general, have not outlined how the areas will remain connected.
- Wyoming’s promise to study wintering grouse is only that. Jonah Energy seeks to drill 3,500 wells across 141,000 acres in the proposed NPL field that overlaps a major winter concentration area. Some 1,500 to 2,000 grouse from across Sublette County flock there in the winter. Jonah wants to develop at four times the density that is allowed in the sensitive core-area zones. The BLM is considering Jonah’s plans in an EIS, asking the company to meet new BLM standards that have scant few references to grouse wintering grounds. BLM’s EIS is a response to a development plan, not a conservation effort built from the ground up.