Officials Are Optimistic About Sage Grouse Protection Plans

May 29, 2015

Stakeholders await announcement of the federal government’s Sage Grouse protection plans.
Credit Bob Beck

Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel came to Cheyenne to announce a massive plan to conserve Sage Grouse habitat in several western states. Wyoming started its own conservation efforts in 2007 and Jewel says it is a model state. The question is whether the federal efforts can keep the Sage Grouse from being placed on the endangered species list. 

Secretary Jewel chose the Hereford Ranch to make her announcement. Standing next to state and federal officials, with a barn as a backdrop, Jewel announced the largest collaborative effort to protect a single species. Many of the minute details are still being analyzed and being tweaked, but the Secretary said it will definitely impact energy development. 

“They take a balanced and a targeted approach focusing protections on the places that matter most. And in the most important areas the plans will minimize or eliminate surface disturbance from energy development like drill pads and major transmission lines.”

Later Jewell indicated there could be exceptions that could allow some drilling.

“But if there is an important area on the surface that can be reached from a non-important area through directional drilling, then there is the potential to develop those resources.”

Still, some industry people are wary. But Wyoming officials say without a change in approach, the state would be in trouble. Back in 2007 former Governor Dave Freudenthal pushed for Sage Grouse protections because he said listing the bird as endangered could cost the state billions of dollars in income that comes from energy and agriculture. Current Governor Matt Mead says Freudenthal was right. 

“There is not future for our economy if we don’t take care of the Sage Grouse, that’s a fact.”

There is not future for our economy if we don't take care of the Sage Grouse, that's a fact.

Wyoming has more Sage Grouse than any other state and a University of Wyoming study said the impacts would be enormous. They projected that 1,600 oil and gas jobs and 4,000 indirect jobs would be lost in the sage grouse’s core habitat areas and the state could see a loss in tax revenue of roughly 34 million dollars a year. Wyoming officials say their efforts have had a positive impact.

Bob Budd is the Director Wyoming’s Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. He said any plan has to preserve habitat but also allow economic activities to continue as best they can. 

“There is a multiple use mandate of the federal agencies and the states have mandates to maintain economies, so you blend all that, but there are cases as the Secretary said where you want not have any activity because it’s too high a risk, it’s too great a threat or a potential threat. There are other places where we are gonna have a lot of activity because the threat is minimal.”

Some in the environmental community are worried that too many well pads are being allowed and that there is not enough of a buffer around Sage Grouse breeding grounds, but most were satisfied and were pleased with Jewels announcement. Studies have suggested that improving Sage Grouse habitat would benefit some 350 species and University of Wyoming researchers added that it would benefit Mule Deer Migration Routes. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, and the Wilderness Society were among those who praised the federal efforts. Dan Smitherman is a rancher who is the Wyoming representative for the Wilderness Society. He says the way federal and state leaders have worked together along with stakeholders is impressive. 

“I think it is unique. I think collaboration in Wyoming is general has been somewhat an alien term. There's been a lot of different people participate, industry, agriculture, ranchers, conservation, government, it’s really an excellent example and I think people should be proud of it.” 

That’s exactly the point governor Mead wants to make. He said if the bird gets listed it would be a setback because of the way states and federal officials have worked together to protect the bird. The governor said it shows how endangered species issues can be better handled in the future.

“The idea is not how many things we can list, the idea is can we save a species? Can we make a species and a habitat healthy? That’s the goal right? It’s not to list, it’s to see what we can do for a species.”

Mead said this process has convinced him that cooperative efforts are the best way to figure out how to protect species. So will all of these efforts convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list Sage Grouse? Jewell said that the agency must see hard proof that the bird will be protected well into the future. But she quickly adds that Fish and Wildlife has tried to help.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has been at the table along with all the others that are here and along with the state wildlife agencies. And they have been guiding these efforts and shaping the decisions that have been made in the BLM plans and frankly the decisions that have been made in governor’s executive orders and that has all been with the eye to protecting these ecosystems so a listing is not warranted."

The federal plans will undergo a 30-day comment period and more revisions. The Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether the Greater Sage Grouse needs federal endangered species protections in September.