Core areas explainedWritten by Jennifer Womack
Lance was among the speakers at the eighth annual Double S Feeders and Wyoming Livestock Roundup Cattlemen’s Conference on Aug. 12 in Douglas. Lance told the crowd of private property owners that the state is exploring opportunities to compensate those landowners within the core areas if the designation prevents their ability to capitalize on wind energy development.
Two years ago the state developed the sage grouse core area strategy, based on known leks, that has since been endorsed as a sound conservation strategy by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “Based upon the data we had at the time,” said Lance, “these areas represent 80-83 percent of the sage grouse in Wyoming.”
“We’ve gotten very clear indications from FWS that the core area strategy and all the actions we’ve taken to this point are going to be a likely precursor to them precluding listing in Wyoming, at least,” said Lance. “That’s why we’re fixing our focus on that mechanism at this point.”
Wind energy development, said Lance, arrived on the scene after the Sage Grouse Implementation Team had developed its strategy and saw it endorsed by the FWS. More recently the state heard from the FWS that wind development within core areas, even for reasons of researching the projects’ impact on sage grouse, could compromise the agreement. It could also negatively affect the state’s standing in the Feb. 2010 decision on whether or not the bird warrants listing as threatened or endangered. During discussions with the upper reaches of Department of Interior management, Lance said he’s been told the FWS position has support throughout the agency’s ranks.
“The question is,” said Lance, “Do we want to chance it, do we want to roll the dice and put this in jeopardy? Do we have a better idea or do we want to live with what we’ve earned from FWS to get past this listing determination in February and start working on some of the science moving forward?”
Amidst the discussions Lance said the Governor instructed his staff to assess the risks, comparing the challenges associated with core areas versus those the state would face if the bird were listed. Lance looked to the GIS folks at the University of Wyoming to aid in compiling the comparisons.
“If they list the bird statewide what would be affected today?” said Lance of the initial question. Those findings were compared to the areas covered by the less burdensome core area approach.
“In terms of statewide sage grouse ESA listings, 95 percent of all BLM grazing allotments would be affected,” said Lance of what would amount to nearly four million acres. “In terms of the core area approach, 65 percent are affected.” Unlike a listing, Lance said existing management practices are protected within the core area strategy. Similar comparisons were made for grazing on private lands, state lands and for other industries and are outlined in a chart appearing within this article.
“If you have existing activity within a core area the presumption is that the birds have chosen to be there in spite of or because of it and we’re not going to affect that through the core area policy implementation,” said Lance. That wouldn’t be the case under a listing that could result in numerous permitting requirements and environmental analysis. Again using livestock grazing as an example, Lance pointed out what would be a perfect opportunity for groups like Western Watersheds Project to interrupt activities.
“Although 66 percent of all BLM grazing allotments are covered by core areas,” said Lance, “nothing really changes for those permittees.” That scenario isn’t true if the bird is listed.
Focusing on wind energy development Lance said, “The premise is that by saying no to wind in core areas, which we’ve had to do, that we are potentially stopping something. That may be true. In fact, it is true. But I would argue that the same rational that FWS used to tell us we shouldn’t develop wind in core areas under our regulatory jurisdiction, they would extend the same logic to an ESA listing. That means that almost 38 percent of all class four and above winds would be shut off from a development scenario under an ESA listing.” Comparatively, with the core area strategy Lance said 23 percent of the state’s best class winds are affected. That includes several acres where development isn’t appropriate for other reasons.
Lance said, “If you compare what a sage grouse listing means versus what we’re doing with core areas, you can see pretty clearly why we chose the core area strategy. It’s not set in stone folks. We’re still taking input and we’re calling together meetings. It’s the best we’ve got at this point, but we’re taking any information we can.”
On a related subject Lance said the statewide Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances that the state has been developing is being reviewed. The state plans to forward it to FWS by Labor Day Weekend. He said, “Our understanding is that this is a top priority for the FWS.”