Last week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was in Pinedale, taking part in a ceremony to sign up Wyoming ranchers to help protect sage grouse. These conservation agreements are called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances or CCAA’s. They’re supposed to protect the birds on private lands, but as Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards reports, some wildlife advocates question whether the program really has the teeth to make a difference.
It’s an early morning on a sage grouse breeding ground called a lek. Here, every spring, as many as a hundred male sage grouse puff their chests and make their breeding calls. Hear the call from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
In its off season, the lek is eerily quiet. But this morning, sage grouse biologists have made the hike out here to teach Secretary Jewell all about these peculiar birds. The lek is located in the bird’s core habitat on the federal land where rancher Brad Bousman grazes his cattle. He’s an old timer with the bow-legged walk of a longtime cowboy. And he’s one of nine ranchers signing the agreements with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Standing by the lek, Secretary Jewell turns to him.
“I want to particularly take my hat off to you, Mr. Bousman. Not only for being a pioneer but also helping your ranching colleagues across the West recognize that we’re partners. We’re not the evil feds,” she says and laughs.
Bousman has ranched this land for 60 years. He says, in that time, things have changed a lot for sage grouse
“Used to be chickens underfoot all the time,” he says, chuckling.
But these “chickens” could potentially be a huge problem for Wyoming and its booming energy industry. A hundred years ago, there were some 16-million grouse in the U.S. Now there are as few as 200,000, and over a third of what’s left are in Wyoming. Jewell is in Pinedale to decide whether to list the bird as an endangered species. The hope is that ranchers can help staunch the decline of the bird before it gets listed
“They want to know how many chickens you’ve seen and all this kind of stuff,” Bousman says. By signing, Bousman voluntarily agrees to do his part: flushing the grouse from his hay fields before mowing, for instance, and converting all his windmills to solar pumps so hawks and ravens can’t use them as perches to hunt the chicks.
Tyler Abbott with the US Fish and Wildlife’s Wyoming field office says because the program is voluntary it’s a win-win for the rancher and the sage grouse. “They want the assurance that if the bird does get listed, we will not ask them to do anything else than they’re already doing.”
Abbott says that when ranchers sign the agreement, it means the feds won’t come along and make them do any more when the sage grouse does gets listed. But it’s also the voluntary nature of the program that makes WildEarth Guardian’s Erik Molvar skeptical.
“A big developer shows up with a suitcase full of cash and says, how about selling so I can subdivide this into ranchettes. All the landowner has to say is, I’m dissolving the conservation agreement and I’m going to sell out.”
And Molvar says the agreements also aren’t using the best science to protect the grouse recommended by Jewell’s very own science team back in 2011. Molvar says, it’s likely the bird will get listed and continue to decline because they didn’t adhere to the strictest science. That means the feds will only have to come banging on these ranchers’ doors again with the tougher measures they could have implemented in the first place. Molvar’s example is the buffer zone that needs to be protected around those breeding grounds.
“These same federal officials are going to have to tell these ranchers, well, we told you six-tenths of a mile was enough yesterday. But today we’re going to make you protect the five-point-three mile buffer. And that’s really not a good way to do business.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe says, sure, the science doesn’t match up, but Wyoming’s rules are still very strong. The important thing is that Wyoming is taking a preemptive approach to saving the sage grouse.
“We are working very hard and our goal is to not list the bird,” Ashe says. “Our goal is to achieve conservation like we’ve seen here today in Pinedale.
On a windy ridge overlooking the Green River, autumn colors are fading fast toward winter. The signing ceremony is underway. An M.C. steps behind a podium and calls the crowd to order.
“Right now, we’re going to have Secretary Jewell and Governor Mead come up to the table. And we’d like all our ranching partners to come up here.”
Brad Bousman and the other ranchers take up pens and scratch their names on the dotted line. They are the first nine landowners in Wyoming to sign the conservation agreements. But, for the program to effectively slow the decline of sage grouse on private lands, many more ranchers will need to sign, too.
And all before next autumn. That’s when the federal government will make their final decision about whether to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species.