Grouse acres gatheredWritten by Jennifer Womack
“We’re trying to help keep the listing off in Wyoming since we’ve got the last stronghold of these grouse,” says Bret Van Rensselaer, one of three partners involved in the effort. Van Rensselaer says he and his two partners, one of whom is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) employee, have worked on the endeavor for a year now without pay. There’s no cost to enrolling landowners, but potential profits if the endeavor moves forward. Payment for the trio, and participating landowners, will arrive if oil and gas industry representatives step to the plate with a willingness to pay landowners for the sage grouse habitat they provide.
“We’re aggregating landowners to get a meaningful amount of acreage to help the governor when he submits all of the information the state has collected for the PECE process,” says Van Rensselaer. PECE is the acronym for Policy for Evaluation and Conservation Efforts and takes into consideration work being done to preserve a species when a listing decision is pending. “We’re offering landowners the opportunity to get into our group and then contract with an individual player on a habitat lease. I call it a conservation easement of need. It’s in place as long as we need it and the landowner doesn’t have to give up any permanent rights.”
In the meantime Van Rensselaer says, “We are discouraging landowners from taking money and building habitat and doing things that propagate the bird in the short term. If they don’t have a CCAA, they’re propagating a species that could become listed and then be a detriment to them.”
CCAA is the acronym for Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances and is a program offered by the FWS to landowners willing to conserve a candidate species on their property. Finalizing a CCAA in the state has proven time consuming and difficult. If a species is listed similar agreements are available in the form of what’s called a Safe Harbor Agreement with the FWS. Such an agreement exists for the Wyoming Toad in Albany County.
Van Rensselaer explains that a CCAA isn’t available on federal lands, but a CCA, or a Candidate Conservation Agreement without the assurances. They will be seeking such agreements on the federal lands enrolled in the program.
Of how closely the Safe Harbor Specialists, LLC, is working with the governor-appointed sage grouse implementation team Van Rensselaer says, “We would like them to endorse what we’re doing, but because we’re a private company and only one part of the sage grouse solution they couldn’t do that. They did recommend habitat leasing as one of the ways to keep this bird off the list.”
Van Rensselaer says he recognizes the mineral industry’s reluctance to support such programs with no guarantee of subsequent rewards. In similar such scenarios he says, “What they get from it is P.R., which isn’t enough for the kind of expenditure they’re offering. We, as a group, will go to the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the FWS and negotiate for meaningful assistance.” Of mineral industry assistance he says, “What they need is something tangible for their efforts.”
Renee Taylor of Taylor Environmental Consulting in Casper says company’s willingness to participate would be on a case-by-case basis. “It sounds like another twist on off-site mitigation and it would be depend on the assurances and the mitigation,” she says.
“One of the governor’s sage grouse implementation team’s recommendations is a CCA for sage grouse conservation,” says Taylor. “They’re working with the BLM and the FWS to figure out a mechanism to provide assurances to the industry without having to tie back to landowners to see what kind of assurances they could get on BLM lands.” Of the concept in general she says, “There’s a lot of thought being put into it.”
On the rancher end of the perspective Van Rensselaer says management plans vary by ranch and are developed in conjunction with the landowner. Those plans range from continuing practices where sage grouse populations remain healthy to making changes in areas where the bird isn’t doing so well. In those areas Van Rensselaer says his group will closely study the situation before making recommendations to ensure efforts taken are truly beneficial to the grouse.
Long-term Van Rensselaer says his company has a goal of 6.5 million acres enrolled. He says the governor’s grouse task force is looking for conservation on 66 percent of the acres in the core areas. “In a perfect world we’d get 100 percent of the core area,” he comments, adding, “What we’ve got right now is good enough to do some good.” The company’s first lot of compiled acreage will be complete by June 27, a date Van Rensselaer says is in time to be included in the governor’s comments to the FWS on its pending sage grouse listing decision. After that, he says acres can still be added.
FWS biologist Pat Deibert voiced concerns the company may be offering promises it can’t keep since the process isn’t occurring in partnership with the FWS. A partnership between her and the company, she says, is an option so long as no preference is shown to individual companies. “I would caution landowners to be educated on what is required of them and what their benefits are,” she says. Deibert also points out that landowners have the option of working with her agency directly.
Van Rensselaer was a bit surprised by the FWS comments noting representatives from his company have met with the agency on numerous occasions. Additional contact with the agency, he says, will be made “immediately.” He says the company isn’t promising finalization of any agreement, but to get landowners to the table with the agencies that have the authority to make the decisions.
“We’ve met with the Governor personally once and his staff a number of times and kept him apprised of what we’re doing and kept track of what they’re doing,” says Van Rensselaer. “It’s a win-win-win, helpful for agriculture, helpful for industry and helpful for the agencies because we’re doing a lot of the work they’d have to do.”