Wyoming not satisfied with sage-grouse review

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Although the new Department of the Interior (DOI) report recommends giving western states more say with greater sage-grouse management, Gov. Matt Mead and others question the DOI’s approach to the species’ stability.

A collective effort by western state and national agencies, the general public and special-interest groups had kept the greater sage-grouse from being listed in 2015 under the Endangered Species Act, with the Obama Administration’s greater sage-grouse conservation plan calling for more habitat protections.

DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke requested the internal staff review of the previous administration’s order and on Aug. 4, received the 52-page report. It lists issues and their short and long-term solutions he is asking staff to implement – which give states more input but also tightens up protected sage-grouse habitat boundaries.

Wyoming’s sage-grouse conservation began with former Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s call for a task force, with current Gov. Matt Mead and the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) carrying through to avoid delisting.

The DOI report explores how to preserve and monitor greater sage-grouse (GRSG) populations with the states and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (FS), who oversee more than half of the general, core and priority habitat (PHMA) management areas.


State reactions

Last week, Gov. Mead acknowledged Zinke and his staff “made an earnest effort to collaborate with the states” in it – but he also found shortcomings.

“The states have primacy over sage-grouse management and Wyoming’s plan is solid and should be allowed to work,” he said in a statement. “The Wyoming approach balances energy, agriculture, conservation and recreation. The federal plans do not fully implement the Wyoming approach. While DOI identifies numerous ways to improve federal plans, I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding.”

Bob Budd, SGIT chair and director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, explained differences between DOI recommendations and Wyoming’s plan.

“There are components of the existing plans that do not comport with the Executive Order,” he said. “Most are simply interpretive issues, such as how compensatory mitigation should be applied in non-core habitat, but one of the major items is the changes in our core areas from an earlier version – (Wyoming) added thousands of birds, and released thousands of acres for development in areas where birds are either not present, or where they are present in low numbers – for a net gain in conservation and a net gain in potential for future development.”

Budd added other areas in the DOI plan “need to be clarified, such as how to properly use range assessment tools, and clarification that guidelines and objectives are NOT standards for management.”


Others respond

“The flexibility that was built into these plans has created loopholes that this administration intends to exploit for its energy, mineral, and development agenda on our public lands,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “The review pinpointed parts of the plan that can immediately be ignored or overturned through backroom deals and new policies, agreements, and staff training. It’s a cynical exercise in how to skirt sage-grouse protections.”

Western Values Project’s Chris Saeger also called Zinke’s order “another reckless decision made by special interests” after the two-year bipartisan collaboration to come up with the original conservation plan.

Others laud the DOI and Zinke’s recommendations to loosen up access to sage-grouse habitat restrictions for energy development.


DOI recommendations

In the report, the first topic holds “oil and gas stipulations, leasing, density and disturbance.”

  • If priority and general habitat management areas “already provide for the durable and effective conservation of the species, consider “eliminating or reducing” sagebrush focus areas and their stipulations.
  • Evaluate if “controlled surface use” stipulations can be changed without a resource management plan (RMP) process.
  • Work with states to develop waiver, exemption and modification language and remove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) role in approving them.
  • Clarify to BLM staff that leasing is currently allowed “in all GRSG habitat categories.”
  • Develop state-by-state disturbance and density caps in a consolidated BLM/state process “so industry knows where to start and the steps to follow.”

“Fluid minerals stipulations” could be modified or removed from special focus areas (SFAs).

The next topic area is “mitigation and net conservation gain.”

  • “Evaluate and document each state’s mitigation approach to see if it meets the intent of the mitigation standard in the GRSG plans.”
  • Regional mitigation strategies should occur with states where “most beneficial for the species.”

The third topic is habitat assessment and objectives’ effectiveness.

  • Clarify how to integrate habitat objectives, land-health standards and land-use plans’ effectiveness.
  • Issue and implement a new “framework” to assess, inventory, monitor and prioritize habitat data (including hard and soft triggers).
  • Consider adjusting habitat objectives.

“For waiver, exception and modification language for PHMA stipulations, options include investigating opportunities to provide additional waivers, modifications and exceptions … while adequately addressing the threats in the area, avoiding habitat loss or fragmentation, and ensuring effective and durable conservation, while providing for economic development.”

Besides fire, fuels and invasive species, “the report also includes recommendations on captive breeding, translocations, predator control and setting population targets.”


Other elements

  • Soft and hard automatic “triggers” based on GRSG population could be removed “when population or habitat recovers from the original condition and more restrictive hard trigger management responses are no longer required to conserve the GRSG or its habitat.”
  • “Improper grazing is a threat to the conservation of GRSG, while proper grazing management is compatible with conserving GRSG habitat and … may support or benefit habitat management.”
  • Each state should establish a state or rangewide GRSG population goal or target.
  • Verify actual GRSG numbers and leks.
  • Predation is a primary issue due to the “recent emergence” of “corvid species such as ravens” and the DOI can help states streamline “corvid control” approval and evaluation.
  • Hunting is “adequately regulated activity managed by states” so quotas should not contribute to population declines.


Captive breeding

Zinke’s staff recommends artificial means of boosting the sage-grouse populations due to unpredictable natural cycles of reproduction and survival in the wild.

Captive breeding – which the DOI acknowledges “has not yet been proven effective” – could be a wildlife management tool “best suited to augmenting small at-risk populations for short periods of time while factors contributing to population declines are simultaneously addressed.”

“While DOI identifies numerous ways to improve federal plans, I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding,” Gov. Mead stated this week. “Industry needs predictability, but the report does not explain fully how population targets provide that certainty. Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species. I will continue to work with Secretary Zinke, state and local stakeholders on this issue.”

In the meantime, the Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) Commission meets Wednesday, Aug. 23, in Casper to discuss the new state law for commercial sage-grouse farms and vote on new regulations to facilitate it.

The law allows certified game-bird farms to “possess, propagate, breed, raise, sell, release and take” greater sage-grouse within property boundaries – and to collect sage-grouse eggs from the wild for a captive breeding population.

The G&F Commission’s Aug. 23 meeting at 10 a.m. will be live-streamed with deputy director Scott Smith presenting and public comment to follow.

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