CASPER — States like Wyoming will have greater control over balancing mineral development with a chicken-sized bird that’s caused controversy across the West under federal revisions to Obama-era conservation plans released Thursday.
The changes to sage grouse management on federal land, which have been soaked in disagreement and politics since they were first suggested last year, will allow oil and gas firms more flexibility to drill in the bird’s habitat while aligning federal rules with state ones.
The sage grouse is a plump bird that once prowled much of the Mountain West and southern Canada, but degradation of its habitat drove extreme population losses. The majority of the birds reside in Wyoming, but they also live in 10 other states.
Three years ago, the Interior Department announced that state and federal plans were strong enough to preclude the bird from an endangered species listing, work credited to federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, oil and gas firms, conservation groups and states like Wyoming.
Wyoming in particular has been a leader on sage grouse management since former Gov. Dave Freudenthal gathered a group across industry and science to write a conservation strategy. The federal plans, and any changes to them, will affect Wyoming’s economy now and the prospect of another endangered species listing threat down the road.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Gov. Matt Mead said in an interview Wednesday, before the plans were announced, noting the importance of keeping the bird off the list for Wyoming.
Mead, along with the governors of other affected states, will have 60 days to review the changes and judge their alignment with state plans.
Mead had not seen the plans when he sat for an interview Wednesday with the Star-Tribune, but he said early indications were that some of the changes would be beneficial.
The governor has been one of the few Western conservatives to push back on the Trump administration’s desire to overhaul the plans. Early rhetoric from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who cited Western anger as his reason for opening the plans to change — appeared to prioritize industry over the plans and drove disagreement into Wyoming sage grouse circles — a cross section of industry, environmentalists and state and local agencies.
Mead advised caution, given the plans’ importance to Wyoming’s economy and the risk of weakening the rules to the point that an endangered species listing becomes necessary.
Sage grouse management is deeply rooted in Wyoming, the first state to develop broad conservation strategies to keep the bird from being listed as an endangered species. Many of the federal provisions — which identify crucial habitats where restrictions on development are strongest — are based, in part, on Wyoming’s work.
The 2015 announcement from the Obama administration that the sage grouse would not be listed as an endangered species was a controversial one, with some groups stating that the plans were too weak to protect the bird and others arguing that the federal agencies had made last-minute additions, damaging the balance with energy development and without consulting states like Wyoming. Still, the no-listing decision was broadly seen as a win for collaborative management as oil and gas companies, coal firms, state and federal partners and environmental groups were all deeply involved in the plans’ development. It was also a win for Wyoming influence, and Wyoming’s governor, who leaves office in January after serving two terms.
The potential now for protections to be inconsistent from one state to another is a concern going forward, the governor said Wednesday, noting that sage grouse habitat degradation in any state can result in a listing decision for all of them.
“It’s not enough for one state to have a decent plan, because you don’t get to count birds and say, ‘Hey, they’re OK in Wyoming … don’t list them,’” he said. “Every state that has sage grouse has to have a plan that is sufficient to keep the bird off the list.”
A listing decision poses great risks to Wyoming’s economy, and its oil and gas industry in particular. The mineral industries’ direct financial contribution to Wyoming constitutes between 50 and 60 percent of the state’s revenue, while the bird’s dominant presence across Wyoming, compared to other states, means its habitat often overlaps with acres where there is existing or potential mineral development.
An endangered species listing would mean new, inflexible regulations on activities like mining, drilling and agriculture across much of the state.
The Interior Department has not imposed unilateral revisions across the 11 Western states where the bird resides.
States like Utah, an outlier with greater opposition to the federal plans than states like Wyoming, will lose all of its general habitat areas — these are acres where the bird lives but that were not included as key habitat in need of greater protection. Meanwhile, Wyoming will no longer have to comply with an edict to prioritize oil and gas leasing and production outside of general habitat — a sticking point for the state. Proponents of removing the language, like the governor, argued that better protections come from the restrictions on development, rather than keeping development out of habitat. Others point out that priorities on where to protect the bird are the foundation of the plans’ effectiveness.
Other tweaks to language included in the revision could be consequential for how sage grouse management takes place on the ground, including the removal of a somewhat nebulous requirement that activities like drilling for oil result in an ultimate gain in conserving the bird’s habitat. In Wyoming, that language has been switched to a provision requiring that there should not be net habitat loss.
A limited number of acres, some 11 million across the West, that constitute the bird’s habitat were given the highest restrictions from development, called sage brush focal areas. Those have been removed in Wyoming.
The 2015 plans included triggers that show habitat is at risk and prompt action from state and federal land managers. Those triggers originally had no off switch, something Wyoming had pointed out, as had others. In the revisions released Thursday, those triggers will remain but there will be no public notice when they are tripped, and the onus on wildlife managers will be to get that habitat out of trouble as soon as possible.
One significant change, from environmental groups, is that the plans will no longer require oil and gas companies to pay compensation for damage to habitat. The new plans make compensatory mitigation voluntary — dependent on state rules on the subject.
Statements flooded out Thursday morning from environmental and conservation groups — many which worked on the original plans in Wyoming — shortly after the BLM released the documents. Those opposed to dramatic changes to the plans pointed out ways in which they believe the new deal is a giveaway to industry, characterizing the changes as far more damaging to the future of sage grouse than the Interior Department is acknowledging.
“The changes proposed by the BLM deliver a damaging one-two punch — they reduce the lands that are protected and then reduce how strong the remaining protections are,” said Nada Culver, director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, in a statement Thursday.
Others noted that the changes are simply risky, leaving the sage grouse’s outlook uncertain.
“These new plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Unless the impacts of development are properly mitigated to avoid further habitat loss, sage grouse could easily become a candidate for the threatened and endangered species list yet again,” he said.
Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, disagreed with the tide of opposition to the revisions, arguing that in Wyoming the changes were modest and will not undermine the work to conserve the bird. The state’s plans, which will guide touchy issues like compensatory mitigation under the plans’ revisions, are largely the same as they’ve been for years, he said.
In regard to balancing development and the bird’s habitat, Budd said the removal of prioritization of oil and gas drilling outside of general habitat increases the incentive for drillers to stay out of core habitat — those acres and breeding grounds that have been designated as most crucial to the bird’s survival.
“We’re trying to write into a plan common sense and logic,” he said. “It’s just saying ‘Use your head. Do your development where it has the least impact.’”