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Group effort rules the roost in Wyoming, then Washington intervenes

Why We Wrote This

The tale of Wyoming’s greater sage-grouse is a rare one of collaboration between conservation and energy interests. A recent push from the US Interior Department threatens to upset that delicate balance.

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Since taking the helm of the US Interior Department, Ryan Zinke has upset a delicate balance of conservation and energy interests in Wyoming, throwing the fate of the greater sage-grouse, which escaped being listed as an endangered species in 2015, into question. Following President Trump’s directive to prioritize energy production, Secretary Zinke has focused on identifying and eliminating any efforts that “unnecessarily burden” energy development. This focus has inevitably made a chicken-sized bird one of the most contentious aspects of Zinke’s 16 months in office. Westerners say the Interior Department’s new energy commitment risks not only the health of the greater sage-grouse but also the largest land conservation effort in US history. The 2015 greater sage-grouse plan proved that compromise between industry, conservation, and landowners was possible – an example of when US policymaking works. Now stakeholders across the 11 states who signed on to the plan worry that the federal government, even a Republican one, will override years of local cooperation. “From outside the state, we have always pointed to Wyoming as proof that we can come to the table and everyone’s voices will be heard,” says Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society.

On a gray, snowy morning in early May, Tom Christiansen keeps his eyes on the male greater sage-grouse dancing on the distant knoll and slowly reaches for his spotting scope on the truck floor.

“The bird is iconic,” says Mr. Christiansen, a self-proclaimed “grouse nerd” who picks up bird scat as if it were a $20 bill. He is the sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It represents the big wide open spaces of the West,” says Christiansen. “I know that if we have sage-grouse on the landscape, we have a functioning ecosystem.”

He is far enough away to need the telescope-binocular hybrid, but he still whispers – careful not to disturb the birds on the lek, or breeding ground. When he picks up his scope, a crumpled news article is revealed. Only part of the headline, “ZINKE… DRAWS WYOMING IRE” is visible, the rest buried under other bird-watching equipment.

Since taking the helm of the US Interior Department, Ryan Zinke has upset a delicate balance of conservation and energy interests in Wyoming, throwing the fate of the greater sage-grouse into question. Following President Trump’s directive to prioritize energy production, Secretary Zinke has focused on identifying and eliminating any efforts that “unnecessarily burden” energy development. This focus has inevitably made a chicken-sized bird one of the most contentious aspects of Zinke’s 16 months in office.

Westerners say the Interior Department’s new energy commitment risks not only the health of the greater sage-grouse, but also the largest land conservation effort in US history. The 2015 greater sage-grouse plan proved that compromise between industry, conservation, and landowners was possible – an example of when US policymaking works. Now stakeholders across the 11 states who signed onto the plan worry that the federal government, even a Republican one, will override years of local cooperation.

“We have seen what America is supposed to do with these governors pulling the oars in the same direction,” says Brian Rutledge, a policy adviser with the National Audubon Society who has been working to find compromise between the energy industry and conservation in Wyoming for more than a decade. “What we did with the 2015 sage-grouse plan is the future of conservation, even if this retro-administration doesn’t want to admit it.”

Across the United States, and the world, energy development and conservation are often considered to have opposing objectives. Energy interests have preconceived notions that any conservation in profitable areas “equals unfair,” and history has made conservation wary of coming to the table in the first place, says Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society. Rhetoric from both sides, she adds, only encourages these assumptions.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tom Christiansen, sage-grouse program coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, speaks about the iconic bird in their sagebrush habitat outside Rock Springs, Wyo.

In Wyoming, natural adversaries have created cooperative arrangements like the sage-grouse plan to prevent a listing under the Endangered Species Act. Players on both sides worry that Zinke’s prioritization of energy over conservation could drive sage-grouse populations so low that the federal government would have no choice but to list the bird as endangered.

Wyoming has “the most at stake” if the greater sage-grouse were to be listed, says Christiansen. The state has more greater sage-grouse, more leks, and more federal onshore gas production than any other state in the US. 

Westerners, especially Wyomingites, are worried Zinke may do away with the greater sage-grouse collaboration as early as October and reduce restrictions on gas drilling in previously protected areas. But they aren’t giving up on the potential for compromise.

“We changed people’s outlook on the largest ecosystem in the US,” says Rutledge referring to the sagebrush ecosystem that spans from southern Canada to New Mexico and Arizona. “They can’t take that away from us.”

Protecting a bird – and Wyoming’s economy

The history of the greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is a part of the history of the West. Plains Indians used to mimic the male bird’s chest punch in ritual dances, and when European settlers moved West in the 1800s, they relied on the millions of greater sage-grouse as a much-needed food source. Early accounts say the bird used to be so plenteous that flocks would darken the sky.

By the 1990s, human interference, mainly habitat fragmentation from energy development and cattle grazing, caused populations to drop, with some estimates as low as 250,000 individuals. This is worrisome for the greater sage-grouse, but also for the entire sagebrush ecosystem. Biologists refer to the bird as an “umbrella” or “indicator” species because if greater sage-grouse populations drop, it’s a pretty good sign that as many as 350 other kinds of wildlife – such as the mule deer, pronghorn, brewer sparrow, golden eagle, and pygmy rabbit – are struggling as well.

“It isn’t just a mascot,” says Christiansen. “It responds to what goes on here. It’s the canary in the coal mine.”

Just as the bird’s success is tied to the success of other animal species, if the bird were to become endangered, it would send ripples across the human ecosystem. Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies, as well as private development companies which require federal permits, are prohibited from adversely modifying critical habitat. An endangered species designation of the greater sage-grouse would cost the state almost $23 billion and almost 86,500 energy and agriculture jobs, University of Wyoming researcher David Taylor found in a recent study commissioned by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

“If the sage-grouse got listed, life as we know it would cease to exist,” says Gary Zakotnik, owner of a family ranch in Eden, Wyo.

To preclude an ESA listing, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal initiated the Wyoming Sage-Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) in 2007, and tasked a group of energy, government, and conservation leaders to sit down and find an agreement. Rutledge says he remembers Governor Freudenthal telling the group: “I don’t expect all of you to be happy with the plan. But I expect all of you to be able to live with it.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Male greater sage-grouse display for females during their mating ritual at dawn outside Rock Springs, Wyo. Sage grouse come back to the same sagebrush-covered leks, or breeding grounds, every year.

In 2008, Freudenthal signed SGIT’s plan into law with the Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection executive order. The core area plan made energy development a priority in some areas, and conservation a priority in others. Conservation groups were satisfied with the plan: Their areas protected 31 key habitats for the grouse and included more than 80 percent of Wyoming’s grouse population. And energy companies were satisfied: They were free to pursue development in the remaining 75 percent of Wyoming and they could even develop in conservation’s core areas as long as they abided by certain stipulations, such as no more than one well pad per 640 square miles.

“This was a long, hard process,” says Jayson O’Neill, deputy director at the Western Values Project, an advocacy group that defends public land in the West. “People left the table, they came back to the table … but it’s how policy needs to be done and how we make these decisions. It’s how we go forward protecting our public land.”

Meetings of unlike minds, with results  

When the curtain of night rises on the lek, the male greater sage-grouse are ready to perform.

The first act is “strutting” – an apt description of the male bird’s pompous, unapologetic show of masculinity. With chests puffed up in a Superman display of confidence, a handful of greater sage-grouse glide across the lek, periodically punching the sky with a high-pitched hiccup. The few disinterested females on the lek make it seem like the dance is dedicated to no one other than the rising sun, a ritual as primitive and predictable as the Earth’s rotation.

After some territorial squabbling, relationships are formed. Much like humans’ management of the bird.

When the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved Wyoming’s 2008 core area strategy as a viable plan to preclude listing, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to Cheyenne and told 10 Western states to follow Wyoming’s example. By 2015, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington had adopted comparable plans.

In September 2015, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that, because of the 11-state collaboration, the greater sage-grouse would not require listing under the ESA.

“I felt a great sense of accomplishment for Wyoming” after Ms. Jewell’s announcement, says Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, the main operator on one of the 10 most productive gas fields in the US. The Jonah field, south of Pinedale, Wyo. in Sublette County is also prime habitat for the greater sage-grouse. “That decision continues to reverberate in how to do conservation right,” says Mr. Ulrich.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, stands beside a sound wall erected to dampen the loud drilling sounds from a nearby natural gas rig at the Jonah Field on May 4, 2018. It is hoped that the wall will minimize disturbance to the sage grouse in a nearby lek.

To make sure that voices across Wyoming continue to be heard, 24 representatives from energy, state and federal governments, agriculture, and conservation (including Rutledge and Ulrich) meet six times a year as the state’s sage-grouse implementation team (SGIT), and eight local greater sage-grouse working groups meet to discuss area-specific issues.

These local groups take the time to listen to one another, says Albert Sommers, and that’s what makes Wyoming’s plan work. At past meetings, for example, conservation advocates asked ranchers to take down tall, unused structures on their property, such as windmills, because they are prime nesting areas for ravens, a predator of the sage-grouse eggs. Ranchers were happy to do this, says Mr. Sommers.

“You and I have a conversation, eventually you and I develop a relationship, and eventually you develop trust and out of that you can find a solution,” says Sommers, a state representative for Wyoming, third-generation rancher, and member of the Upper Green River Basin Local Sage-Grouse Working Group. “It’s not simple. It’s not fast. Conservation – real, serious conservation – it’s hard.”

Lek populations naturally cycle through highs and lows, says Christiansen, so it is difficult to know exact figures. But estimates suggest the greater sage-grouse population has remained stable over the past decade. And energy development has continued in recent years as well: Ulrich and Jonah Energy are close to breaking ground on a field almost five times the size of Jonah Field. As many as 3,500 wells are planned for the Normally Pressured Lance natural gas field, says Ulrich, which is just southwest of Jonah. 

“But then a fox entered the henhouse,” says Mr. O’Neill of the Western Values Project. “And that fox was Secretary Zinke.”

In May 2017, just a few months after Zinke was sworn into the Trump administration, Wyoming’s Governor Mead, a Republican, and Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, learned that the new Interior secretary was holding meetings about greater sage-grouse management. They co-authored a letter to Zinke, asking him to involve the states.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Paul Ulrich of Jonah Energy stands among gas wells and a rig at the Jonah Field outside Pinedale, Wyo. Jonah Energy uses fracking to extract natural gas beneath land that is also important to local wildlife – like the greater sage-grouse, mule deer, and pronghorn. The energy field is mostly on federally managed land. The company is mandated to reduce the effects of the industry on wildlife.

Less than two weeks later, Zinke issued a secretarial order to review the state-federal conservation strategy of the greater sage-grouse, “in order to give appropriate weight to the value of energy and other development of public lands....” But as O’Neill says, Zinke put his finger on the scale for energy and began to throw the compromise out of balance.

Conservation advocates say special interests groups have encouraged Zinke’s hand. “There was a lot of rhetoric from trade associations, but we didn’t hear anything from the individual [energy] companies actually working in the West,” says Ms. Culver of The Wilderness Society. “To anyone who looks at these plans, a balance is achieved.” 

This year, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has more than 1.3 million acres in Wyoming up for oil and gas lease, 99.9 percent of which intersects with greater sage-grouse habitat, and more than 53 percent of this area is priority habitat

That figure includes 700,000 acres of new leases on public land in and around the Greater Little Mountain area, south of Rock Springs. Local conservation groups had been meeting with BLM to find common ground on energy development in this crucial migration corridor, but Zinke’s order opening the Greater Little Mountain area canceled these conversations.

SOURCE: Wyoming Game & Fish Department, Wyoming State Geological Survey
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“This new secretarial order undermines the ability for local folks to have a say,” says Josh Coursey, a founder of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, a group based in Green River, Wyo., that promotes hunting and wildlife management. “That poses a problem because then you have someone 1,800 miles away making a decision that does not necessarily reflect the values of the area.”

Decisionmaking from far away 

The least populated state in the US, Wyoming has a running joke that the state is just one city with really long sidewalks. That makes top-down decisions from Washington seem especially distant. 

And Wyoming’s compromising skills may have something to do with its size, says Sommers. Despite the sparseness of people scattered across the state, “You live with each other, they are your neighbors,” says Sommers.

As a boy, Sommers always knew he would be a cattle rancher. He grew up on this farm, and so did his father, and his father’s father, who moved west in 1907 and chose this land south of Pinedale, Wyo., where the rushing Green River meets hills of purple sage brush. Politics, however, does not run in the family. 

This fall, Sommers will be running for his fourth term in the Wyoming House of Representatives. When explaining what made him want to work in politics, Sommers shrugs. “I like finding solutions,” he says. And just as Christiansen loves the greater sage-grouse because of the open spaces they represent, Sommers says Wyoming owes its policymaking to the landscape.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Albert Sommers (l.) and a ranch hand work on horseback on his ranch near Pinedale, Wyo. Sommers is in his third term serving in the Wyoming legislature and also raises grass-fed beef. This high desert is important for ranchers, wildlife, and energy companies – who often search for compromise in sharing the land for multiple uses.

“There are still vast differences in opinion on certain things,” says Sommers, as tears pool in his eyes, “but how could you live in this landscape and not love it?” 

But the swinging pendulum of national politics, says Sommers, whipping his hands left and right, is bringing Wyoming’s policymaking into question. Every side broke down their walls for compromise and now uncertainty looms at every level, he says. 

Zinke took his secretarial order further in May when he published a draft environmental impact statement that considers drilling in core habitat areas for the greater sage-grouse without the previous protections that strictly limit surface disturbance. Comments on the EIS, both from state officials like Christiansen as well as the public, are due by Aug. 2, and a final decision by Zinke is planned for Oct. 11.

Mead said he sees Zinke’s proposed changes as “minor tweaks,” and SGIT Chair Bob Budd told the news organization WyoFile he doesn’t find them “particularly onerous, scary, or particularly large scale as far as change is concerned.”

Some conservationists, such as Rutledge, says the core area strategy is “as good as done” come October. If this is the case, greater sage-grouse populations will likely decline. But some lawmakers are determined to avoid the economic restrictions that an ESA listing would bring.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act approved by the US House of Representatives would bar the federal wildlife agency from listing the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species for 10 years – regardless of population size. The Senate has passed their own version of the act without such an amendment. Congress’s two houses are currently resolving their differences, such as this amendment, and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry (R), expects a final version of the act to be agreed upon by the end of July.

More broadly, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R) proposed draft legislation earlier this month that would change the ESA itself by giving states more authority in endangered species protection.   

A reversal of the 2015 plan would affect relationships across the West, says Culver of the Wilderness Society.

“From outside the state, we have always pointed to Wyoming as proof that we can come to the table and everyone’s voices will be heard,” says Culver. “Seeing the approach undercut would be a big loss....”

The West has pride in the 2015 plan, says Rutledge, but there is more at stake: trust.

“Instead of making the western handshake mean something, [Zinke] is spitting on those hands,” says Rutledge. “Unlikely friendships have been molded out of this, and now we have sage-grouse fans.”

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network.

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