Wyoming’s sage grouse strategy may have satisfied federal regulators this week, but conservation groups say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision doesn’t prove grouse are in recovery.
The not-warranted decision was widely proclaimed a success when Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made the announcement Tuesday. Wyoming was given credit for its extensive work under the sage grouse implementation team, a group formed by Wyoming in 2008.
Unprecedented collaboration staved off a listing, Jewell said, adding that the decision represented the beginning of conservation not the end.
After industry and conservation groups expressed hope for the decision and plans, some began voicing concerns about the bird’s future.
Federal management plans for public lands, approved the same day the grouse was not-warranted, will largely follow Wyoming’s state restrictions on development in grouse habitat, with buffers around breeding areas and a limit of one well pad per square mile in protected areas.
But Clait Braun, a retired sage grouse researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said there was no scientific evidence to prove that Wyoming’s efforts have been effective.
“I’m a scientist. I want to see results,” Braun said. “I want to see birds increasing over time.”
Sage grouse population numbers are up since 2013, but from 2007-2013 the population dropped dramatically, a part of their natural population cycle. Highs do not make up for the lows, Braun said.
Colorado began conservation of the Gunnison grouse, and later the greater sage grouse, in 1995, Braun said.
“That’s 20 years ago. What do we have? We have less sage grouse,” Braun said.
Without more protections, some populations across Wyoming will likely disappear, he cautioned.
For Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society, listing was never the goal, but creating a management strategy was.
“It was set up to encourage us to plan. That’s exactly what we are seeing here,” Rutledge said.
With a strategy in place, conservationists can move forward.
“The purpose of the plan has been to stop the bleeding, and now we have to go back and take care of the injured patient,” Rutledge said.
The energy industry has largely come out in support of the not-warranted decision. An endangered species listing would have put strict regulations on development and energy extraction in Wyoming.
Paul Ulrich, of Jonah Energy LLC, said the federal decision was a credit to the state’s sage grouse team, but also a credit to industry willingness to work with regulators.
“The industry has done a remarkable job over the years of cooperating and particularly on the conservation effort, participating in (Sage Grouse Implementation Team) meetings to make sure we have the best available protections,” Ulrich said.
With the ESA listing off the table, projects that were sidelined can move forward, Ulrich said.
“Overall for Wyoming, the uncertainty around the potential listing decision was a challenge,” Ulrich said. “There should be a very concerted effort with industry partners to start moving project along that have been stalled. We now know the playing field. It’s time to get to work, continue conservation and enhance development where it makes sense.”
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner’s rights group that has been vocal on the need to preserve sage grouse in Northeast Wyoming did not release an official position on the not-warranted decision.
Shannon Anderson, organizer for the council, said implementation of conservation plans is the key to saving the grouse moving forward.
“It seems like the executive order is still the lay of the land here in Wyoming, and there is still a commitment to get that carried out and implemented, so I hope that continues,” Anderson said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service can always revisit their decision, and there are some groups that will push for listing.”
Wyoming’s conservation strategy has required local sacrifices, Anderson said.
“There are certainly tradeoffs embedded in the core area approach. That happens anytime you get a group of diverse stakeholders together, particularly when representatives from the oil and gas and coal industry sit at the table and make decisions.”
Other environmental advocates were clear. The decision not to list, and the land management plans, fall short of addressing the threats to the grouse’s futures, said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist for WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group in Wyoming.
“The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West,” Molvar said in a press release. “And now the interior department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems.”