The newest member of Wyoming’s sage grouse team said he would seek to use grouse raised at his bird farm to offset or mitigate the effects of development, if farm rearing is successful.
Diemer True sees several potential uses for farm-raised greater sage grouse, he said. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead appointed True, an oilman, rancher, and former president of the state Senate, among other things, to the Sage Grouse Implementation Team earlier this year.
Opponents to the captive breeding program say the program is bad policy that privatizes wildlife and ignores both the impacts that egg collection can have on wild grouse populations and that previous efforts to raise the birds in captivity have failed.
One Casper resident who has been involved in sage grouse conservation for many years said in an interview that True had a conflict of interest because of his ownership of a bird farm and desire to raise grouse while commenting on bird-farm rules with the team.
True rejected any impropriety. He said that if his captive breeding is successful, farm-reared birds could be used for research, for hunting, and for offsetting the impacts of development in sagebrush country. “There’s really practical reasons,” for raising greater sage grouse, True said. “If it can be done…. Nobody’s proven they can do this.”
True took his seat on the SGIT panel April 28 in Casper, as one of two oil and gas representatives on the 23-member team. The Sage Grouse Implementation Team serves as the an oversight group in implementing the governor’s sage grouse executive order. The Legislature said the team should provide recommendations on regulatory actions to maintain grouse habitat and populations.
True owns a bird farm near Powell — Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds LLC — he said. Diamond Wings was formed in 2016, according to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office.
True made his comments in an interview following the SGIT meeting at which draft rules proposed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department were discussed as requested by Gov. Mead. The Legislature passed a bill earlier this year allowing such farms to operate. The draft rules outline the application process for potential grouse breeders, set protocols for disease-free certification, define how enclosures would be constructed and maintained, and set egg-collection, inspection and record keeping policies, among other things.
A number of scientists, conservation groups and others have questioned the effect of allowing grouse farmers to collect eggs from the wild, the probability of a successful breeding program, and the chances that farm-raised birds would survive in the wild. They also wonder whether transplanted farm-raised grouse can offset impact of development and whether the new law undermines a public trust doctrine by allowing private ownership of Wyoming’s wildlife.
Wyoming’s sage grouse farming law
Wyoming’s sage grouse farming law ignites passion and outrage because of its controversial private ownership provision, among other elements. A member of the Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Working Group, a committee that reports to SGIT, called the Wyoming Legislature’s action “an example of their arrogance and ignorance when it comes to dealing with wildlife management issues.”
Bruce Lawson told the sage grouse team he was disappointed in the Legislature because of the law. He called the law “an insult to all of you,” and said it was “a slap in the face to all the professionals,” in wildlife science, according to a video of the SGIT meeting. Gov Mead allowed the bill to become law without his signature, stating in a letter his “considerable reservations” about its provisions. The law is to sunset in five years.
Lawson told the sage grouse team he doesn’t want captive rearing to work. “I think it’s a mistake and I hope it fails successfully,” he said. “I think it puts us on a slippery slope with the privatization of wildlife.”
He complained during the last legislative session about the bill to Senate President Eli Bebout, Lawson told the grouse team. But he was basically told that politicians “know better than all the wildlife experts in Wyoming,” Lawson said.
Regardless, SGIT Chairman Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, said Gov. Matt Mead asked SGIT to weigh in on the rules and regulations that the law now requires Wyoming Game and Fish to establish.
Game and Fish has drafted seven pages of rules that Budd said he distributed to SGIT members before the meeting. They are marked “not for public distribution,” and have not been finalized for public comment, which is expected to occur later this summer. The draft regulations were projected in a slideshow at the SGIT meeting, but not distributed to audience members. Budd made a copy available to WyoFile (see below).
In an interview after the SGIT meeting, Lawson also said he told True he thought the SGIT member had “an extreme conflict of interest” participating in SGIT’s discussion about captive rearing because True had a bird farm that could profit from the rules. True rejected that complaint. Sage grouse health and population status affects all Wyoming residents economically, not just bird farm owners, True said in an interview.
“Anybody in the State of Wyoming who has a job in the State of Wyoming has a vested interest to keep the bird from being listed as endangered,” he said. “Whenever rules are being promulgated, the individual companies and trade associations routinely offer input.”
Further, the grouse team is not forming rules, True said. “SGIT is just offering an opinion,” he said. It was “just coincidental,” that he was appointed to the team earlier this year, he said. “I’ve been interested in the topic for many, many years.”
There are at least four “really practical reasons” to farm-raise greater sage grouse, True said in an interview, echoing some of his statements at the SGIT meeting. First, however, a captive breeding population must be established so “you could breed year-in and year-out.”
“Research is number one,” True said. He referred to a transplant of wild grouse from Wyoming to North Dakota as a research project.
The Bismarck Tribune reported in April that the North Dakota Game and Fish Department was catching Wyoming sage grouse and transplanting them with a goal of releasing 40 females and 20 males. “They collared them and they’re trying to reestablish a population,” True said.
Another use — for hunting — would resolve a “cognitive dissonance” in Wyoming. “We’re very concerned about the sage grouse being listed but we still have a hunting season,” True said. Diamond Wings “could sell the birds to other commercial bird farms and they could go out and hunt them.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which has said its hunting seasons do not threaten grouse populations, reported hunters shooting 10,498 grouse in 2015, the latest year for which statistics are posted on its website.
Third, farm-raised birds could be used to restock Wyoming habitat that’s vacant. True said the concept has been discussed by agricultural interests, including the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.
“There are certain key sage grouse habitat areas that don’t have any sage grouse,” True said, and as a result, “they can’t use this prime habitat as a mitigation tool unless they actually have sage grouse. A landowner could come and say ‘We want to populate this area with some sage grouse.’”
Mitigation would seek to offset impacts of development like oil and gas drilling. In the case of sage grouse, officials may consider offsetting disturbance of grouse habitat by undertaking conservation measures elsewhere. Such mitigation could be permitted under Gov. Mead’s greater sage grouse core-area protection executive order and related rules and regulations. Wyoming is working to define how and whether such exchanges could work, including what parts of such transactions would be public.
Another potential mitigation could be the simple release of farm-raised grouse, True said. “If you have some sort of development — a land disturbance — it might be instead of acquiring habitat you could just buy and set loose some incremental sage grouse,” he said.
Scientists question grouse farming
The director of the North American Grouse Partnership wrote Wyoming’s grouse team about his “serious concerns” regarding sage grouse farming and urging SGIT to “use sound science” when implementing the bird farming law. Steve Belinda, a Montana wildlife biologist, wrote that his 18-year-old nonprofit focuses on 12 of the world’s 19 grouse species, the landscapes they inhabit and the human connection with both.
Because Wyoming is home to 37 percent of the world’s greater sage grouse, “it is imperative nothing be done to jeopardize Wyoming’s sage-grouse populations through the implementation of this law,” Belinda wrote. “Previous attempt[s] to restore grouse populations into vacant habitat through the release of pen-reared birds into the wild has had almost no success in reestablishing populations.”
Further, sage grouse farming could harm native populations, he wrote. “Nor is there any scientific information regarding successfully removing eggs from wild sage-grouse populations or whether removing sage-grouse eggs and disturbing sage-grouse nests over an unspecified area will cause greater reduction in sage-grouse populations than any augmentation could possibly counter.”
Other species of game birds — like chukar partridge, pheasants and quail — show “little success” in establishing viable populations in the wild, he said. To be successful in the wild, game-farm birds must fly well and know natural foods. They need strong predator avoidance skills and shouldn’t be habituated to people.
“Science clearly has demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to raise grouse in captivity because very young chicks refuse to eat, and subsequently, survive for only a few days,” Belinda wrote. “Raising and maintaining greater sage-grouse for release back into the wild will require more stringent regulations and protocols than raising and maintaining them for put-and-take hunting.”
“If the purpose of House Bill 0271 is meant to be a vital step in the conservation of greater sage-grouse, then the Wyoming Legislature and game-farm owners and operators should support strict regulations and protocols that ensure greater sage-grouse held in captivity retain as much of their natural instincts as possible so they have the best chance of survival when reintroduced into the wild,” Belinda wrote.
Belinda said Game and Fish regulations should prohibit egg collection in core areas and on federal lands and impose other restrictions. Among those are regulations that would prohibit taking more than half the eggs in a nest and prohibition against using dogs to locate nests. The draft Game and Fish rules would allow the use of pointing-breed dogs.
Belinda’s group also proposed close supervision of grouse farms including requiring renewal of permits every two years. His group recommended requiring a 60 percent success rate of raising birds to six weeks old from collected eggs, and various disease protocols. On top of those recommendations, the North American Grouse Partnership doesn’t think farm-raised grouse should be used for mitigation, as True proposed.
“NAGP strongly opposes the use of captively reared birds as a form of mitigation or compensation for any impacts associated with habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation from authorized actions by the State of Wyoming o[r] Federal Agency.” Belinda wrote.
Representing The Wildlife Society, scientist Matt Holloran told the sage grouse team the Game and Fish rules need a clear set of objectives, goals and a mission. They also should address the potential negative effects on wild populations, he said.
The SGIT also saw opposition to captive breeding from Lawson’s Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Working Group. Rancher Stacey Scott said the group “cannot see any benefit to the grouse population and the private ownership of a native Wyoming game species is bad policy.”
Despite its opposition, the Bates Hole Working Groups said that if breeding goes forward, “all the data on collection and breeding should be documented and made public,” Scott wrote in a letter. Others said at the meeting that all aspects of captive raising should be revealed, especially since the draft rules propose the purpose of the regulation as establishing scientific protocols for the captive rearing.
True disagreed with the idea of transparency of research. He said grouse farm owners should be allowed to keep secrets because revealing all aspects of an operation would amount to revealing confidential business information in a potentially competitive marketplace.
“We will be researching along the way,” True said in an interview. “Every business tries to excel in their particular field. They do it by constantly improving what they do. It’s nothing more or less than the business practices that we have in a free-enterprise capitalist system.”
True told the grouse team the Game and Fish’s proposal to issue three-year farming licenses should be changed to five years. “That didn’t make any sense to me,” he said of the draft state limit in a later interview.
“The way the sage grouse would be handled is the same way we would handle pheasants, quail, partridge,” True said. “To put the captive raising of sage grouse in perspective, it’s only going to be one more arrow in the quiver to deal with sage grouse being listed.”