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A look at Wyoming’s long history with sage-grouse and preventing an endangered listing

 A greater sage-grouse fans out his tail.
U.S. Forest Service

As part of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Wyoming Public Radio is looking at different species in Wyoming that either are listed or have been considered for listing. A conversation about the ESA would be remiss without the Greater Sage-Grouse.

The bird lives in 11 states in the West, with about 40 percent residing in Wyoming. Since the 1960s, data show that the total population has long been declining. So, for many years, some groups have petitioned to list it as endangered. Wyoming has tried desperately to avoid that, as it could severely restrict development and energy production across much of the sagebrush landscape in the state.

Since the early 2000s, Wyoming has tried to show the feds that it can manage the declining bird. Right now, that plan includes 15 million acres of ‘core area,’ which provides protections for the bird and limits some development. Most recently, the state is proposing to add onto the map to once again convince the feds the bird doesn’t need to be listed.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan spoke with Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, which is overseeing the redrawing of Wyoming’s new map. Budd has been involved with the state’s sage-grouse efforts since 2000.

The following copy has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Wyoming Wildlife & Natural Resource Trust

Caitlin Tan: Bob, you have invested decades of your life with sage-grouse, and it's obviously a very controversial topic. First of all, are you tired? And second of all, why do you continue to invest your time?

Bob Budd: Well, do I get tired of it at times? Yes. I think it'd be a lie to not admit that. But why do I do it? Because I care about the species. I care about our state. And because I've had three governors telling me, 'You're going to continue to do it.' That last one is probably more compelling than the others.

But it's a tremendous group to work with. In Wyoming, we all sit down at the table, we come up with solutions that work that include people who are invested in it, whether that be a conservation perspective, oil and gas, mining or ranching.

CT: So tell us about what you guys have come up with – the updates to the map. I know there's been several drafts and public comments

BB: A lot of people act like this is a brand new thing. The original map was done in 2008. Those maps are built off of where the birds are. What are the birds telling us? Where is the habitat? And where do we have opportunity for maintaining and improving habitat for the species, as well as dozens of other species that live in that ecosystem? And in 2010, we went back and looked at the originals and said, 'You know what, there are some things we need to make adjustments to.' We did the same thing in 2015. Since then, we went back and said, 'All right, what is the information that we have now, compared to what we had in ‘15?'

As an example, if you go back to when we started in 2008, we had a very large coalbed methane play going on in northeast Wyoming that has since ended. So you have birds reoccupying those areas. You have places where the birds are doing well that were not suited to be in ‘core area’ at that time. And we looked at where there are areas that maybe don't fit being in ‘core.’ So that's just good sound management, going back and saying, 'What did we get right? What did we get wrong? How do we make adjustments?' And that's what we're doing now as part of the process.

CT: So about how much extra land would be added into ‘core areas’? And what does the process look like going forward when it goes to the federal government?

BB: Well, first of all, I can't give you an exact number of acres, because the governor hasn't looked at the new mapping and made a decision. But it will be somewhere in the realm of half a million acres that are under consideration. And that's out of 15 million plus that are already in. So, that's not a huge percentage, it's an adjustment. But the number of birds in that about 500,000 acres is fairly significant.

So how that plays into the federal process – the bird is the state's bird, not the federal government. And as a consequence, we are the ones who will say, 'Look, these are the areas that should be managed in Wyoming for sage-grouse.'

CT: And is there any possibility of the federal government not accepting this plan? And if so, what would happen then?

BB: Does that possibility exist? Of course it does. I hope that doesn't happen.

CT: Do you know what would happen if it did?

BB: Well, I think we probably would all have a bunch of lawyers lined up.

CT: I want to talk a little bit about the pushback. I've heard from some people that they don't want to see the map change. I've even heard people feel like we're kind of “bowing down to the federal government” by adding on to the ‘core area’, and that potentially this could even infringe on private property rights or energy development. What's your response to people who are upset?

BB: We've been managing with ‘core areas’ now for almost 20 years, and we do respect private property rights. There are a whole host of de minimis practices that relate to agriculture and ranching that are allowed because they’re in the normal context of those operations. We have developed oil and gas in ‘core areas’, and we have developed other minerals. We have done that because it's been done responsibly. You have people who are following a very strict protocol of avoiding conflict, minimizing impacts, and, where necessary, providing for compensatory mitigation. The vast majority of what's been done has followed only the first two, because there has been no need for compensatory mitigation. So we've basically found ways to avoid conflict and impact. That may be things like co-location of activities on lands that are already disturbed or development of travel management plans that limit the need for additional roads. So there are any number of things out there that we have been able to accommodate under the existing core area strategy.

So I think that a little bit of those fears are misplaced. I do understand them, but as far as kowtowing or caving to federal pressure, it's our map. We develop the map. They'll have their own maps, and then people can see what they think of that.

CT: And then on the other side of the coin, there's people that feel like this map isn't going far enough – the bird’s numbers are still declining. I've heard from some people, they feel like it's too accommodating to industry, and that sage-grouse need even more protection. What would be your response to them?

BB: Basically, the same thing. This is based on the science of where the birds are, and in the areas that they're using.

There are people who would like to take the entire state of Wyoming and black it out and say, 'This is all for sage-grouse and for nothing else.' That's not going to work. It is a balance anytime you do this, and particularly when you do like we do in Wyoming and involve all of the affected parties. There are going to be compromises and there are going to be areas that some people think should be in that aren't. There are going to be areas in that people think shouldn't be in. But at the end of the day, it's the best judgment of a wide variety of people who have a chance to weigh in, provide input and provide their expertise.

CT: How concerned are you that the greater sage-grouse would be listed under the Endangered Species Act?

BB: I'm concerned about it because I think that there are any number of issues. Number one, you have to look at how the assessment will be done. The way that the petition has been done is across its range, which is 11 western states. So everything we do in Wyoming that's right is affected by something that goes wrong in another state, whether that's a management issue, which generally is not the case, or a wildfire issue, or other things that are affecting that species. Those all affect us because they're in other states. So I have a concern about that.

Am I concerned about the future of the bird in Wyoming? No, I'm not. I think that there are things that we are doing and will continue to do that will help to secure that species – barring something like a massive disease or parasite or asteroid or something like that. I think that we are doing a great job. I'm not worried about the bird in Wyoming. I am worried about what may happen if you get a listing.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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