Sage grouse ‘connectivity’ discussed at SGIT meeting
Laramie — The Governor’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) met April 14 to review ongoing sage grouse issues, as well as discuss the possibility of new management strategies for the bird.
Among the new strategies is the concept of connectivity – or ensuring that sage grouse can move among the already assigned “core areas” to maintain genetic viability over time.
SGIT facilitator Bob Budd explained reserving corridors of land for connectivity is proposed for some migratory lands. “Those areas would be managed differently from both core and non-core areas,” he said.
“The issue of connectivity becomes especially important as you look at those areas close to a core area border where there are migratory issues and the potential for genetic mingling. Some populations, without connectivity, are subject to potential declines,” explained Budd. “There is concern for the small, isolated populations and we want to make sure they have the opportunity for some mixing with other populations.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director John Emmerich noted which areas in Wyoming would be of highest priority, including the northeast corner of the state and the southern Big Horn Basin.
“Montana is concerned because some of their summer populations winter in Sheridan and Campbell counties in Wyoming. There is also a big gap between the Big Horn Basin and some southern populations in central Wyoming. We also want to ensure we have connectivity into Colorado. It’s important to recognize that birds need to move between population areas to maintain genetic viability over time,” explained Emmerich.
Chris Keefe of the BLM noted that northeast Wyoming is a primary concern due to the number of permits, primarily oil and gas, the BLM has granted in that area.
“It is imperative we identify where connectivity habitat is, and how this team thinks it should be managed. We aren’t creating more core area habitat, but it’s not non-core, either. There has to be something in between where some level of impact can still occur. The highest density populations in the northeast part of the state are in non-core areas and are declining significantly. Development will affect them very soon if every permit applied for is granted. We would like to identify where connectivity habitat is and develop some criteria for how to manage it,” added Keefe.
While recommendations and insight were asked of the team, it won’t set specific policy. Instead, local sage grouse working groups will develop policy and select connectivity habitat areas based on the recommendations of the SGIT.
The physical attributes of connectivity habitat were among the recommendations the team discussed. They include the presence of mature sagebrush and evidence of bird use in the area. The width of connectivity areas and their distance from leks and were also considered.
The team also discussed how to determine areas that are not potential connectivity habitat – an important aspect of eliminating some areas and focusing efforts in others.
“Industry is concerned because if you don’t designate those areas that aren’t crucial, then connectivity is everywhere and you’re going to meet resistance every step of the way,” said Budd.
Industry representatives also expressed concern regarding the restrictions of additional protected habitat, saying they’ve already altered management in several areas of the state to reduce sage grouse impacts and meet compliance agreements to the fullest of their abilities.
The team’s next step will be to provide local working groups with a concrete list of the physical attributes of connectivity habitat.
“By allowing local groups to tackle the issue, it’s ensured that industry, conservation and other interested parties are at the table and that developments are made at the ground level,” said Budd.
“I am confident they will succeed in creating a highway for those birds to get to Montana and back,” said Budd of the Buffalo local sage grouse working group. “These recommendations also provide other local working groups guidelines when considering connectivity habitat.”