Grouse conservation options progressWritten by Jennifer Womack
Early June, says Governor Freudenthal’s Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Lance, a meeting was held between the Governor’s office, the state lands office, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The purpose of the meeting, he says, was to determine steps necessary for establishing of a formalized grouse conservation opportunity for landowners across the state.
Private landowners would voluntarily enroll acres in the program. By agreeing to meet certain guidelines, which Lance says will be developed between now and early August, landowners could protect themselves from regulation under the Endangered Species Act if the grouse is listed.
Questioned about the timeline on which the CCAA and CCA effort is being developed, Lance estimates Wyoming has about a year and a half to finalize the program. The decision to be made by December of this year simply relates to whether or not the FWS will further consider listing the grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If that discussion does move forward with additional research Lance says the state would have until the middle of next year to finalize its work. If the FWS decides not to further pursue listing, Lance is hopeful discussions within the state will continue on a bird that’s likely to receive continual attention.
Lance says grazing and its potential benefits to sage grouse will be among those items discussed as the Best Management Practices are compiled. “It will list the things landowners can do and the tools at their disposal,” says Lance. Property owners across Wyoming will have an opportunity for input on the document that must strike a balance of meeting the state’s multiple use needs while proving appealable to the FWS.
On federal lands Lance says he isn’t yet sure if the federal agency or the grazing permit holder would launch the discussion to enter a CCA. Having a CCA in place, he says, does hold benefit for the grazing permit holder. “If they renew their lease on federal lands and you’ve taken these steps on your permit,” explains Lance, “and can demonstrate through monitoring and the BLM has operated with the permit holder, the Section 7 process is streamlined and renewal happens without a lot of discussions.”
“One of the things we’re looking at is protecting the grazing regimes,” says Lance. “The sage grouse are choosing to live in those core areas for a reason. One of the last things we want to do is make wholesale or minor changes in grazing unless the landowner or the permit holder supports those changes.” He says his office will continue the dialog with the industry as strategies are finalized. “We’ll likely have something done in July or early August that will give us a good backdrop for discussions with private landowners.”
Once strategies are in place Lance says it’s likely the Governor will issue a land management directive to all state agencies asking them to take certain conservation measures in the name of sage grouse. Protecting the grouse while ensuring the goal of managing state trust lands for the maximum benefit of the state’s schools will be at the heart of that discussions he says.
Lance points out that landowners do have the option of pursuing a CCAA individually, which some have chosen to do. Such a measure involves discussion of the individual ranch and its proposed CCAA within the Federal Register. Participation in the state program, he says, would result in the Federal Register discussion pertaining to an umbrella effort for Wyoming. Participants enrolling acres in the program would receive a certificate acknowledging their involvement.
“We have another meeting next week to start working on the stipulations for oil and gas development in the core areas and mitigation for mining,” says Lance. “We need to know what the BMPs are in the core areas to preserve those populations.”
“We realize there isn’t a big, rosy picture surrounding the CCAA process within the landowner community,” says Lance. A CCAA has never been finalized in Wyoming although the Harshbargers of Newcastle have been working on one for multiple years. “We all have to become comfortable with the process. We don’t want to dive in only to find out how deep the creek is when we’re halfway across.”
“There’s a lot of fear out there,” says Lance of landowners in Wyoming given their turbulent history with the ESA. “Landowners have become skeptical and in a lot of realms that’s justified.” He’s hopeful this new approach will turn a new page to a more proactive approach to the state dealing with ESA petitions during a time when their presence has become inevitable.
At the end of the day Lance is optimistic the efforts being put forth on behalf of the sage grouse can prevent a listing across its Wyoming range. “If the bird is listed in Wyoming,” he says, “efforts undertaken will fall to one agency that admits it is ill-equipped to take on the job. We’d rather retain it as a state matter and leave them to their job of helping create proactive measures to benefit the sage grouse.”