Sage grouse team delivers document to Governor’s desk
“The process was pretty inclusive, with input from people from a variety of interests, and we had tremendous participation from the public,” says Bob Budd of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) of the letter and stipulations the team sent to Governor Freudenthal in late June.
The stipulations were put together in response to a letter from the Governor requesting they reassess the Core Population Areas (CPAs), address the issue of connectivity between populations of geographic importance, recommend a procedure and guidelines for development within core areas and non-core areas and consider needs for research, inventory and habitat protection.
Budd, the SGIT coordinator, says some of the team’s meetings drew close to 100 people. “That was good, and we had good participation across the board from industry, agriculture, conservation organizations and other interests, including the federal land management agencies and others who will be the ones to help implement this.”
In 2007, Budd estimates the group met at least a dozen times before delivering its first product, which led to the Governor’s first executive order regarding core area habitat and sage grouse, and this spring held eight meetings over the course of four months to get their stipulations ironed out.
“It’s a very effective way to get things done. Many people were asked to be involved, and they stepped right in and did it,” says Budd. “We met frequently enough that we didn’t have to reinvent everything with each meeting, and it did work out pretty darn well.”
Of the process used to develop the documents, Budd says it was very thorough. “All eight of the local sage grouse working groups analyzed the maps, using very high resolution imagery and their local knowledge to add a great deal to the mapping process,” he says.
“The mapping is much more precise,” says Governor Freudenthal’s Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Lance. “In 2008 we did the best we could with what we had, and with this revision the public can have a higher degree of confidence that we’ve picked up the birds we need to, we’ve been thoughtful about existing activity, and have really engaged the sage grouse local working groups in this effort.”
Lance says previously there was some concern that the local working group process was bypassed. “This time around we went back to some of them as many as three times to get their feedback on local circumstances and suggestions on mapping,” he notes.
“We addressed the issues we were asked to look at – mainly, is that map right?” says Budd. “There were areas taken out where we didn’t have great sage grouse habitat or populations combined with high demand for other uses, and in some areas we found sage grouse at high numbers, and those were added back in.”
The team ended up with a slightly larger amount of acreage in the CPAs than the original map, says Budd, but he says on a scale of 96,000 square miles, adding 300,000 acres is “insignificant.”
“Over 83 percent of the birds in the state are in the core areas, which take up only about 24 percent of the state’s land mass,” he explains. “We really did hit where they are.”
In the letter to the Governor the team recommends the boundaries set not be adjusted for five years, and then only when “adequate data is present to either expand, contract or replace portions of the CPAs.
“The adjustments you see to the CPAs have been generally reviewed at a fine-scale analysis at least three, and more often four, times since the initial areas were defined. We would like to thank you and the Wyoming Legislature for significant investment in better mapping; this investment has significantly improved the quality of our work,” says the team in its letter.
Budd says the SGIT also addressed the concept of “connectivity” in northern Wyoming. “That was an issue in the listing decision, and we think it was addressed adequately,” he notes.
“As you can see from the current mapping effort, there is ample opportunity for birds to maintain genetic diversity within the state, and to allow genetic mixing with birds in Montana, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. This is the primary reason some originally separate CPA boundaries were connected (e.g Big Horn Basin, eastern Wyoming) within the state in this revision,” reads the letter. “In addition, two key connectivity areas have been identified in northern Wyoming to maintain potential movement of birds in those areas. Within these connectivity areas, development should be tailored to minimize disturbance of sagebrush habitats, and to actions that do not impede movement of migrating birds. Recommendations for management in connectivity areas were developed by the Northeast Local Working Group, in a joint effort between federal land management agencies, private landowners, industry, and other interested parties. We fully support that effort, and heartily endorse the notion that local solutions are far superior to statewide standards in that regard.”
The SGIT developed stipulations for the CPAs, should development occur within their boundaries. “The stipulations have been shored up,” says Lance. “Before we didn’t have a good understanding of how to permit new activities inside core habitat, especially where there was existing disturbance. With the process we’ve developed there’s now a higher degree of regulatory certainty in core area habitat.”
“Equally, or more, importantly, the group and the Governor agree, and hopefully state government agrees, that outside core areas it’s time to go ahead and allow development to take place,” says Budd, noting that the areas designated for connectivity will be managed under a different set of guidelines from the core areas.
“We feel like we’re to the point where, outside of core, we need to incentivize development of all types,” adds Lance. “We need to work with companies outside of core to make sure the tradeoffs we’ve made with protection in core areas leads to enhanced permitting outside of them. The feds have treated outside of core like core areas, and we say no, the deal was if we protect the core areas, we could develop a lot more outside of core. We’re hoping to get that solidified.”
Lance adds that ag stipulations remain the same. “Agriculture is treated as an existing activity, and is really exempt from the core area stipulations,” he explains. “And some activities, like water developments, will give a greater degree of assurance that ag is not seen as a tremendous threat to sage grouse, but in many circles is seen as a great benefit.”
“The Governor has taken the recommendations under advisement, and we’ll see an amended executive order and potentially legislation down the road,” says Budd. “The Governor will act in the manner he finds appropriate, and that will be announced to the state. The group has done its job, and they’re on hold and may be discontinued at this point.”
Lance says the Fish and Wildlife Service waits one year from their last decision to conduct another status review of candidate species, of which sage grouse are one. “That’s where our science efforts will head going forward,” he says. “We want to start answering some questions from the listing effort, particularly connectivity. One concern we have going forward is that some environmental groups would try to split the state, but we have great confidence those populations are connected.”
“The candidates for Governor have endorsed the process and the product, and that gives a good credible argument to move forward with our planning,” adds Budd of the future of Wyoming’s sage grouse management.