By Camille Erickson
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Conservation and energy groups alike applauded a new executive order on sage grouse Gov. Mark Gordon issued Thursday that both maintains and clarifies existing protections for the imperiled bird across Wyoming.
The order upholds existing conservation strategies first instituted in 2015 but also adds new data collection requirements and outlines guidelines for reclamation of disturbed sage grouse habitat.
“The governor did not intend to make radical changes, so it really comes down to making it more user-friendly and clearer,” said Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team and executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. “I think that was done very successfully.”
To Budd, the new order primarily strengthens the language and organization of the 2017 order.
A group of two dozen experts from some 20 different agencies comprise the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team — from biologists and mineral developers to lawmakers. But the eclectic team found some rare common ground with the new order, according to interviews with several members.
Several conservation groups championed the newest rule. The amendments would likely help protect the sensitive bird for years to come, they said.
“There are some very important additions,” said Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “Number one, we prioritized reclamation, restoration and enhancement of habitat. Instead of just minimizing the disturbance, we’re looking at fixing something that we’ve broken.”
State-instituted sage grouse protections have an unequivocal effect on energy developers by limiting where and when mineral extraction can occur. But even some leaders in the industry endorsed the new law of the land.
“I have been very supportive of the revision and most of the elements (changed) are very minor,” said Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy LLC. Ulrich is also a member of the state’s sage grouse team and worked on the latest revisions to the order. “I think it strengthens core area protections for sage grouse and continues a longstanding commitment that the Sage Grouse Implementation Team has had of maintaining a strong balance between allowing economic development while protecting the bird.”
Ulrich said he was optimistic about the outcome, calling the executive order “one of the greatest success stories” of Wyoming.
“I don’t think it will have any discernible impact on the industry,” he added.
In 2008, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal implemented the state’s first executive order of its kind to “maintain high quality Greater sage-grouse habitat.” The new rule turned pockets of land speckled across Wyoming into core habitat for the bird. The order restricts development by industries like mineral and agricultural development within the 15 million acres of sagebrush-rich land, about one-fourth of Wyoming’s total acreage. Gov. Matt Mead subsequently revised the protection strategy in 2017.
The current governor has been considering amendments to the state’s sage grouse core management strategy this year. In May, Gordon said he aimed to make minimal revisions in close collaboration with experts and the public. The state’s sage grouse team and other Wyomingites submitted a hefty stack of recommendations on how best to amend the order.
“It is impressive that such a wide array of interests understand the importance of this issue to Wyoming’s economy and our ecology and were willing to work together to build the strong foundation of this strategy,” Gordon said in a statement issued Thursday.
With the largest population of sage grouse in the world, Wyoming has a significant role to play in ensuring the bird’s sustained future, multiple conservationists said.
Many hope Wyoming’s most recent executive order sets an example that other states with sage grouse communities will soon follow, even if the federal government succeeds in rolling back protected habitat.
“We’re pleased that Gov. Gordon has confirmed the state’s core area protection strategy, showing that Wyoming will continue to lead in efforts to conserve the Greater sage-grouse,” John Rader, a conservation advocate at the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said in a statement. “But our federal partners need to uphold their responsibilities to make sure the state strategy can work effectively.”
Last month, the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to revise and possibly reduce several sage grouse habitat protections in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah this month. A 60-day comment period for the new decision will close Oct. 1.
Sage grouse-friendly habitat has been at risk for years. The bird often avoids even the slightest human disturbances and has been relegated to smaller and smaller parcels of appropriate habitat across the country. Recent census numbers showed the number of sage grouse has continued to decline in Wyoming and multiple neighboring states.