Greater sage grouse conservation plans will begin to take shape in WyomingWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Casper – “Wyoming’s wildlife is iconic. Wildlife provides food, hunting opportunities, outfitting opportunities, people enjoy watching wildlife, and wildlife is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem,” comments Jessica Crowder, policy advisor for Governor Matt Mead.
Petitioning for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the Greater sage grouse began in 1998 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) received eight petitions in five years.
“In Wyoming and other areas of the West, work began to develop conservation plans for the Greater sage grouse, in recognition of this species’ widespread distribution,” she notes.
On Sept. 22, FWS determined that the species was not warranted for listing under the ESA, thanks to the hard work of many groups and people, she says.
Sage grouse have cyclic populations, which means that numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year, and many different variables can impact population numbers. But one of the biggest concerns about the bird is the loss of habitat.
“One concern is the conversion of rangeland to cropland, which isn’t as big of a deal in Wyoming, but it is in some other places like parts of Washington and Montana,” she explains.
Invasive species such as cheatgrass and diseases such as West Nile Virus can also greatly impact sage grouse populations.
“Records have shown that historically, some of these sage grouse were probably hunted at much higher levels, and they were not regulated as they are now,” she adds.
Another factor concerning bird populations is their fidelity to nesting grounds, meaning that they rarely look for new areas to breed in, even when faced with dangers or threats.
Conservation plans began in Wyoming under Governor Dave Freudenthal, who signed the first Executive Order concerning sage grouse in 2008. The Order was updated in 2010 and again in 2011 under Governor Matt Mead.
“A big part of the effort recognized that we need to be able to conserve populations and habitats where it has the most effect,” Crowder states.
Stakeholders from many different industries worked together to determine how the conservation efforts could be implemented while still considering the economic implications of those actions.
“The Sage Grouse Implementation team, which the 2014 legislature made permanent, contains ranchers, oil and gas industry reps, mining reps and other non-governmental organizations such as the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. It also contains state agencies, conservation districts and local governments such as county commissioners. This is a diverse group making decisions and talking about conservation strategies for the bird,” she explains.
As state plans are implemented, conservation efforts may begin to affect stakeholders on federal land, as well as other land interests in Wyoming. Multiple agencies are working cooperatively to participate in the plans, and experts should be available to answer questions at local, state and federal levels.
“Both Forest Service plans and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans contain tables that have seasonal habitat objectives and desired conditions. Those objectives and conditions are aspirational,” remarks Crowder.
Although landowners may be concerned about language in the plans, there are conditions that allow for flexibility.
“There are soil variables, there are weather variables, and there are previous-use variables,” she comments. “We asked them to put in language that says all desired conditions will be dependent on site capability and local variation.”
If landowners have habitat that is suitable for Greater sage grouse but does not meet specific conditions listed in the state plans, they can work with the agencies to evaluate their site. If the site is suitable for sage grouse and does not need improvement, it can be signed off on as habitat that supports the bird.
“We need to make sure we’re paying attention, and if we need to get monitoring data, we should do that. We can talk to our Natural Resources Conservation Service person or our BLM person about what the site is actually capable of producing,” she says.
Agencies and land users can work together to determine if current grazing or land management practices are serving the best interests of both the producer and the conservation of the Greater sage grouse.
Another concern that some permit or lease holders have addressed is the BLM’s right to evaluate usage of grazing lands that are voluntarily relinquished. Although the BLM has the right to do so, the language is standard and aligned to the way permits have always been reviewed when they are voluntarily relinquished.
“The existing mechanisms that BLM had to go through before they still have to go through,” she remarks.
Time to adjust
Crowder emphasizes the fact that the state plans contain flexibility, and land users can work with their agencies to ensure that all stakeholder interests are considered in areas of concern for Greater sage grouse conservation.
“Implementation will take time. Nothing is going to happen immediately,” she mentions. “We have time to think about the flexibility and monitoring.”
Crowder continues, “We need to go in, talk to people, start having the conversations and pay attention to what’s happening on our allotments. We need to pay attention to the recommended changes and make sure that if there is room for flexibility, and that is being considered.”
Crowder spoke at the at the 22nd Annual Wyoming Women’s Ag Symposium, held in November 2015.