Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Gov. Matt Mead on Wednesday signed agreements with nine Wyoming ranching families aimed at preserving sage grouse and the ranch operations on 39,000 acres.
Overlooking thousands of acres of BLM sagebrush and private ranches at Trappers’ Point near Pinedale, Jewell and Mead said the agreements would ensure ranching would continue — in a manner that safeguards the imperiled bird — even if the greater sage grouse becomes protected next year under the Endangered Species Act.
The ceremony, which began with Jewell and Mead hugging, contrasted with recent critical rhetoric from Western governors regarding potential protection of the grouse by Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service next year.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service would love to have healthy environments so that the need for a listing as threatened or endangered for this bird is not required or not warranted because of the stuff that’s happening on the ground,” Jewell said.
“I’m optimistic that we can preserve these ecosystems,” she said as she scanned the upper Green River valley between the Wyoming and Wind River ranges. “I’m optimistic that we can support the long-term future of ranching in Wyoming, the long-term future of oil and gas as well.”
The “candidate conservation agreements with assurances,” require ranchers to follow practices that protect grouse. Those can include limiting grazing near grouse mating grounds and flagging fences so grouse don’t collide with them, among other measures. In exchange, if grouse are protected by the federal government by a September, 2015, deadline, those ranchers’ operations would not be curtailed by additional restrictions.
The nine agreements signed Wednesday — the first in Wyoming, Jewell said — cover more than 39,000 acres in Sublette, Johnson and Campbell counties.
Mead praised former Gov. Dave Freudenthal for beginning the process of protecting sage grouse in Wyoming. “But none of it happens without the ranchers,” he said.
He quoted his mother, the late Mary Mead who told him “ranchers were the first environmentalists.”
“If you look at ranches that are doing well, wildlife also does well on those ranches,” the governor said. “Ranchers will be the first ones to notice a change in habitat. They’ll be the first ones to notice … what’s happening with (the) species.”
“As the Fish and Wildlife makes its determination next September, I want to be able to say, and we can say in Wyoming, that we have done it right,” Mead said. “We have done those things necessary to make sure that the species is not listed.”
In making its decision regarding protection, Fish and Wildlife will focus on threats to grouse and their habitat, perhaps more than actual numbers. Reducing uncertainties regarding those threats is the goal of the conservation agreements.
Before the ceremony, Jewell spent the morning touring Brad Bousman’s ranch near Pinedale and learned of things done there to protect the grouse. She also flushed a pair of the birds on nearby BLM land.
Bousman, among the conservation agreement signatories, began working on conservation agreements in Sublette County in 2007, he told the audience of about 60. Jewell described his decision to replace a windmill stock pump with a solar-powered one. The windmill structure allowed ravens and raptors an unnaturally advantageous perch or nesting site from which to hunt grouse and their eggs.
Bousman said changes he’s made were not difficult.
“Most of the management practices that are good for chickens (sage chickens is a nickname for sage grouse) are good for cows,” he said. “So it makes a lot of this easy to agree to.”
If there are enough conservation agreements, Bousman said, he hoped it would make it easier for ranchers to renew their grazing permits with the BLM. The agreements might also help convince judges, who will decide inevitable lawsuits over grazing on public land, in favor of ranchers.
“That’s kind of the bottom line from my perspective,” he said.
Jewell also praised Mead and Wyoming for their work on grouse conservation.
“We have going on here in Wyoming the most effective example of the state and private landowners working in cooperation with multiple federal agencies to protect these ecosystems in perpetuity,” she said. “Wyoming was way ahead of the curve.”
The state was the first to designate core habitat areas for sage grouse, areas where their needs received special recognition.
“We didn’t understand how important sagebrush was as we removed sagebrush years ago for grazing,” Jewell said. “We know that a healthy sagebrush ecosystem means a healthy Western way of life.”
Mead is “the most active engaged governor in this process,” Jewell said. She called him “a leader among governors, helping other governors realize why this is good for their economies and good for all of them.”
He replied by declaring her “a great partner to work with.”
Scores of migrating antelope crossed a highway overpass a quarter mile from Trappers’ Point as Mead, Jewell, Bousman and other officials addressed the gathering. Jewell had showed Mead a photograph of the antelope that she took while arriving at the ceremony.
“We want wildlife here,” she told the group. “It is what defines the American West.”
Here are the ranchers who signed the nine conservation agreements and the counties where their operations are located:
Brad Bousman — Bousman Livestock, Inc.
John Erramouspe — G & E Livestock, Inc.
John Boroff — Boroff Land and Livestock
John Blaha — Blaha Ranch, Inc.
Donald W. Rogers, Jr.
Fred Pape — Pape Ranches, Inc. (Sublette County)
Jennie & Mark Gordon — Merlin Ranch
Priscilla Welles — HIP Investments, LLC
Roy Liedtke, Kelly Hardy, Wendy Hutchinson — Longreach Buffalo Co., LLC