State’s sage grouse CCAA efforts continueWritten by Jennifer Womack
Attorney Tom Blickensderfer, Governor Freudenthal’s Endangered Species Coordinator, is tackling the CCAA project for Wyoming sage grouse and spoke about his work during the recent Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts meeting in Gillette.
Candidate species are those under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) for listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA. “What are these assurances?” asked Blickensderfer. “What it all really boils down to is that the FWS will offer up to you assurances that, should a particular species be listed under the ESA, if you have gone into an agreement where you commit to certain conservation measures on your ground you can forgo any other regulatory restrictions on your ground. Those are the assurances if you commit to those measures prelisting.”
A listing decision, based on a Dec. 4, 2007 legal ruling, could have come as early as this December. “Do it over, but with new information, good and bad, that has happened since 2005,” said FWS’s Brian Kelly summing up Judge Winmill’s instructions. One of the key documents to be included hasn’t yet been published, therefore delaying the delisting decision. “You’ve got 12 months from the decision on listing to complete a CCAA,” said Kelly.
“With the sage grouse it’s very clear the FWS is very sympathetic and very willing to work with states willing to put their own efforts on the ground,” said Blickensderfer, noting Governor’s Freudenthal’s support for “crafting Wyoming solutions.”
“The Governor’s Task Force has mapped the greatest concentrations of grouse,” said Blickensderfer of the governor-appointed team. Mapping continues with a new level of detail, he said, noting, “One of the most salient mapping exercises we’re doing is trying to establish the various habitat types of the bird, which include leking, brood rearing and wintering habitat.” He said that would allow management techniques to be implemented during times of the year when the birds aren’t using a given area.
“We’ve integrated that into the core area strategy to serve as the basis for the CCAA,” said Blickensderfer. “We’ve put together an umbrella CCAA, which in essence covers the entire state of Wyoming,” he explained of a partnership with FWS. “Every land user, be you conducting a grazing operation, be you doing oil and gas operations, uranium mining, any number of different land uses, you can join in on that agreement through a Certificate of Inclusion, which we will put together as well.”
While the groundwork itself has been put down, several questions remain. “This is the biggest effort that has been undertaken in the country from a geographic standpoint,” said Blickensderfer. With a great deal of sage grouse habitat on federal lands, where a CCAA isn’t an option, but instead a Candidate Conservation Agreement without the assurances is, land ownership is a key question.
“On surface situations, you are going to have circumstances where you have private ground, circumstances where you have state ground and BLM ground. So how do you deal with that?” asked Blickensderfer. “First and foremost, the federal ground is not our responsibility from the standpoint of doing a CCAA. That is a separate effort by the major landowner to move on their own trajectory to put together a much shorter document, a Candidate Conservation Agreement.”
“But the question comes in, how do we meld these together when we are in that checkerboard situation,” said Blickensderfer. His answer is consistency among conservation practices across ownership boundaries.
Certificate of Inclusion details remain to be determined. Blickensderfer said he envisions a description of the mineral estate that would bring developers to the table with landowners to keep the grouse in mind when development occurs. “That’s a work in progress,” he said.
There’s also the question of just what landowners signing a CCAA will be asked to do in return. Blickensderfer mentioned everything from a continuation of currently proven practices to habitat enhancement.
“I want to be sure we don’t overload landowners with a whole series of requirements, stipulation and undertakings,” he said. “I’m thinking at most four conservation practices they can put on the ground.” There’s also the question of when and how a landowner who is not complying will lose the associated Certificate of Inclusion.
Whatever the documents include, as pointed out by Little Snake River Conservation District Manager Larry Hicks, they have to be defendable in court. CCAAs, partially because few have been written, haven’t yet been tested in court. Blickensderfer said that if that legal test were to occur on Wyoming’s agreement, the state would defend the agreements. Landowners would likely play a separate, yet related, role in that litigation.
Once the wrinkles are ironed out, the document may serve future purposes. “The sage grouse is just the torch bearer for a large sagebrush ecosystem challenge,” said Tom Christiansen with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.