(Casper Star Tribune, December 27) – Two federal agencies endorse Wyoming’s strategy for maintaining sage grouse habitat in a draft report to be released today, setting the stage for a renewed battle over the use of public lands in the Cowboy State.
The stakes for Wyoming could hardly be larger. Oil, gas and mining operations are highly reliant on access to public lands, as are ranchers. Much of that land is also prime sage grouse habitat, with Wyoming accounting for about half of the species’ total range.
The draft report, once finalized, will dictate policy on 16 million acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land in Wyoming, or roughly a quarter of the state’s surface area. It also encompasses 23 million acres of federal mineral estate.
The agencies’ decisions are being closely watched. Industry representatives and ranchers fear further regulations could restrict their operations. Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry the loss of sage grouse habitat could threaten the species’ survival.
Industry and environmental representatives were quick to criticize the report Thursday. Environmentalists said the federal agencies stopped short of requiring science-based conservation measures that could halt the bird’s decline, and instead only advocated for such practices to be encouraged.
“The Wyoming proposed amendments are so wishy-washy that they are a recipe for continuing the 50-year decline in sage grouse populations across the state,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental organization. “If we lose the sage grouse in Wyoming, we cannot expect to prevent the extinction of this bird throughout the West.”
Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, a trade group, was still sifting through the report when reached Thursday. But he said his organization has “some large concerns” about potential regulations outlined in the draft.
“It’s certainly going to have impacts not only on the oil and gas industry, but the wind industry, mining, ranching, hunters, anybody who uses public land,” Hinchey said.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the sage grouse qualified for some federal protection, but stopped short of listing it under the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental groups sued and the wildlife service now faces a court-ordered 2015 deadline to make a decision over whether to list the bird.
BLM and Forest Service lands figure prominently in that decision, accounting for 60 percent of sagebrush habitat in the Greater Sage Grouse Management Zones. The zones, established by the wildlife service, encompass large swaths of the bird’s range in 10 Western states.
The draft report represents an attempt by the two agencies to establish conservation strategies that will prevent the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said.
The public can offer comments on the draft through March 24. Public meetings will be held in February, with dates, times and locations to be announced next month, Gorny said.
BLM officials have previously identified October as the deadline for setting a final management plan.
The report outlines five potential management strategies. They range in scope and prescription, from maintaining current management practices (Alternative A) to limiting industrial development and prohibiting grazing in areas of core sage grouse habit (Alternative C).
The report identifies Alternative E as the agencies’ preferred option. That plan is based on the Wyoming executive order signed by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and since updated by Gov. Matt Mead. The strategy would set a 5 percent disturbance cap per
640 acres in areas identified as core sage grouse habitat.
The state worked with BLM and the Forest Service to develop the report and will continue to do so into the future, said Mead policy advisor Jerimiah Rieman.
“In an effort to protect our economy and traditional way of life, Wyoming and its partners have expended considerable resource in developing a management plan that conserves the Greater Sage-Grouse Core Population Area,” Rieman said in a statement. “These land and resource management plans play an important role in realizing our objectives.”
The report is technically an amendment to the management plans of six BLM field offices in Wyoming — Casper, Kemmerer, Newcastle, Pinedale, Rawlins and Rock Springs — and also covers the Bridger-Teton and Medicine Bow national forests and the Thunder Basin National Grassland. It doesn’t include BLM offices that are currently revising their management plans, such as Lander, Bighorn Basin and Buffalo.