By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
Core-area leasing and mitigation banking rules are atop the list of issues raised by 78 commenters who responded to Gov. Mark Gordon’s call for input on amending the state’s sage grouse conservation plan.
Gordon intends to modify the executive order implemented by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and amended by Gov. Matt Mead — Wyoming’s primary regulatory mechanism that seeks to protect the imperiled bird and keep it off the endangered species list while allowing other uses of state, federal and private land to continue. He’ll meet with the Sage Grouse Implementation Team in Cheyenne tomorrow and recommend changes to the lauded management regime.
Gordon has spent “a considerable amount of time” reading details in more than 414 pages of comments, SGIT chairman Bob Budd said Friday after meeting with Gordon. Some recurring themes emerged in the comments, Budd said, “none of which were a surprise.”
The Trump administration’s leasing of core-area habitat for oil and gas exploration — an approach that appears to run contrary to the existing Wyoming order that seeks “prioritization of projects outside Core Population Areas” — figured prominently in the comment letters. Several letters specifically addressed the so-called Golden Triangle of world-class grouse habitat near Farson where the BLM has leased 23,000 acres for oil and gas development and plans to auction more.
A large number of commenters, including several local sage-grouse working groups, also seek changes to rules to allow mitigation and habitat replacement for some developments (see comments below). Today, there’s only one authorized mitigation bank in the state, commenters said — the Sweetwater River Conservancy involving Pathfinder Ranches in central Wyoming.
Many commenters said rules to offset impacts to grouse habitat when those impacts can’t be avoided should be changed to accomplish habitat restoration and protection close to the actual impacts rather than in a remote county.
Gordon has not wavered from statements he made earlier this year to WyoFile supporting the mitigation concept, Budd said. “It is important we have some mitigation,” Gordon said in January.
The governor, however, “felt that we’re not that far along,” in the development of new banks and methods of offsetting impacts, Budd said. Regarding prioritization of leasing outside core areas, Budd and the governor “didn’t talk about that one.”
Overall, “I honestly don’t see anything that is a huge game-changer in how we continue to manage for sage grouse,” Budd said. The reworking of the executive order “will not be a major overhaul,” an announcement of the SGIT meeting reads.
The core-area strategy is a linchpin of management regime established by the executive order. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed the policy of prioritizing “development outside Core Population Areas,” saying “if implemented by all landowners [it…] would provide adequate protection for sage-grouse and their habitats.”
But that prioritization “has all but been discontinued in practice by the BLM,” Ed Arnett and Steve Belinda wrote respectively for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation and North American Grouse Partnership. “…The current rate of leasing and potential development simply does not make good sense,” given that the executive order states that “all efforts” to direct that development “shall be made.”
They called for a state-federal master leasing plan to prioritize leasing outside core areas. Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Audubon Society also see the Wyoming strategy being eroded.
“We recommend that the State reemphasize its commitment to safeguarding core area habitats by maintaining and strengthening development prioritization standards irrespective of Federal efforts to undermine those standards through changes in their leasing and development priorities,” wrote Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Brian Rutledge, director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative for the National Audubon Society.
Joe Bohne, chairman of the Upper Snake River Working Group pointed to an example of how federal action has eviscerated the executive order. “Recent events, such as the decision to allow leases in the ‘Golden Triangle,’ cause us to question the ability of the Executive Order to protect Greater sage-grouse sufficiently,” he wrote. “This decision alone likely foreshadows the inability of the Executive Order to conserve Greater sage-grouse in Wyoming unless the Core Area policy is strengthened and enforced.”
The Golden Triangle area that’s being leased by the BLM contains the highest density of sage grouse on Earth, wrote Tom Christiansen, who served as the Game and Fish sage grouse leader until his recent retirement. Game and Fish Department maps four breeding-ground leks there with more than 100 males, including “the only lek in North America to exceed a count of 300 male sage-grouse.”
“Leasing and developing on the best sage-grouse habitat on the planet is not consistent with the goals and objectives of the EO,” Christiansen wrote.
The Wind River-Sweetwater River Local Sage Grouse Working Group also is worried, wrote Stan Harter, acting chairman for that coalition. “We are concerned with recent changes from the Trump Administration that ‘rolled-back’ rules pertaining to oil and natural gas leasing and development,” he wrote “We are concerned that these rule changes may severely erode the effectiveness of the previously established rangewide conservation strategies and partnerships.”
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation joined the chorus. “Based upon the way lease sales currently operate, we see no evidence that [prioritization outside core areas] is being applied,” wrote Joy Bannon, the federation’s policy director. The group is “therefore concerned that our federal partners are not adhering to the spirit and intent of [the core-area strategy].”
Wyoming’s sage grouse strategy recognizes a hierarchy of conservation priorities starting with avoidance of impacts, followed by minimization, then, as a last resort, compensating for unavoidable impacts. Mitigation banking — protecting, improving or preserving habitat in one place in exchange for damaging or destroying it elsewhere — is one approved way of offsetting unavoidable impacts to grouse habitat. Gordon’s call for comments produced a debate among mitigation banking advocates about how such banks should be used and regulated.
Ryan Lance, president of Pathfinder Ranches, that operates the Sweetwater River Conservancy, wrote 12 pages about why his operation should remain Wyoming’s mitigation bank. Others, including local working groups, a stock association and the Upper Green River Conservancy seek more banks across the state to enable mitigation closer to disturbances.
Pathfinder Ranches LLC owns and operates Sweetwater River Conservancy Greater Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Bank, the first approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offset impacts to sage grouse in the U.S. It is a private company under Sammons Enterprises, Inc, a diversified holding company with financial services, industrial equipment, real estate and infrastructure interests in its portfolios, according to Sammons’ webpage. Sammons claims assets approaching $98 billion.
Seventeen ranching families rely on Pathfinder Ranches for their livelihoods, according to Lance. He cautioned against authorizing conservation credits — that a group such as his can sell to developers — for commitments that are not permanent.
He called the shorter commitments “credit lite.” Some believe those offering shorter conservation offsets “should not have to invest the sort of money Pathfinder had to spend and engage in the acrobatics we were forced to endure to become certified…,” Lance wrote.
Some of those short-term advocates will suggest the Executive Order be revised to impose a requirement or preference that offsets be located close to disturbances, Lance wrote. “Pathfinder Ranches will strenuously object to any such provision,” Lance wrote.
Pathfinder was vetted by a conservation banking review team endorsed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he wrote. It is authorized to offset impacts across Wyoming and beyond, his letter reads.
“…[A]ny criteria, preference or requirement that specifies that mitigation must be located within the county, BLM field office or region as the impact is wholly indefensible,” Lance wrote. “Including any reference to a proximity requirement or preference into the revised Executive Order would be arbitrary, capricious and contrary to the state-approved SRC Sage-Grouse Bank Agreement, law, policy and science.”
Others want conservation near where habitat is being destroyed. The Bighorn Basin Local Working Group is among the groups calling for “mitigation banks within the geographical boundaries of each of the eight local working groups so that habitat disturbance can be mitigated within the same localized area.” The group, wrote Leslie Schreiber, sage-grouse and sagebrush biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, “is strongly opposed to centralizing mitigation credits in only one statewide bank.”
The Southwest Sage-Grouse Local Working Group supported that position, chairman Corby McGinnis wrote. The governor’s order should “strive to first apply off-site mitigation credits to the mitigation bank located nearest the area of disturbance.” The state should strive to create such banks across Wyoming, the group’s letter says.
Mitigating off-site in one location has negative impacts on the northeast Wyoming sage grouse population, Tracy Jones, chairman of the Northeast Wyoming sage grouse working group wrote. Sweetwater County commissioners agreed in principle, saying their panel “does not support exporting sage grouse habitat to areas far removed from the area of impact while leaving the county with the development aftermath of reduced sage grouse habitat quality.”
Off-site mitigation “is meaningless to the affected local population,” wrote the Upper Snake River group’s Bohne.
Rob Wallace, whom Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt just nominated to be assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, supported more mitigation banks as the president of the upper Green River Conservancy, a co-op. “The Program should limit specific compensatory mitigation projects to the geographic distribution of the population of sage-grouse impacted by an activity for which those projects are being used to offset,” he wrote.
He called for a program with “a level-playing field that holds all type of mitigation to the same standard whether provided by for-profit organizations and landowners, non-profit organizations, habitat exchanges, in-lieu-fee programs or public agencies.” The program should be authorized by the Wyoming Legislature as a state agency, office or other program, he wrote.
Shorter-term conservation credits also should be considered, wrote Eric Peterson, administrator for the Wyoming Conservation Exchange, a nonprofit. “Wyoming can increase the benefits to sage grouse populations from a revised system that removes barriers for family ranches, encourages credits in closer proximity to impacted birds, and employs term limited credits,” his letter reads.
Wyo-Ben, Inc, a third-generation private bentonite mining company with more than 100 employees, said the conservation credit marketplace needs to be broadened. Requirements for 50-year protections disincentivize participation, Jonathan Madill wrote.
The Wyoming Mining Association also seeks mitigation opportunities closer to its members’ operations, executive director Travis Deti wrote. Another industry group — Wyoming Petroleum Association — seeks to use mitigation as a method to permit continuous drilling in non-core areas, instead of interrupting operations because of seasonal restrictions.
Wyoming Stockgrowers Association is worried about the “excessive complexity and resulting lengthy time frames associated with credit approval,” Executive Vice President Jim Magagna wrote. The association seeks to have the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust assume the role of “final credit approver.”
Family-owned ranches “are the backbone of wildlife habitat conservation, wrote Margie Taylor of Sheridan. They may only maintain habitat “if they can receive some income for their conservation commitment.” Consequently, the order needs to be examined for barriers that stymie “the broadest possible participation,” in conservation programs, she wrote.
SIGT chairman Budd said the volume and detail of the comments underscore residents’ and industry’s support for wildlife. “What it says to me is … people do really care,” he said.
Commenters brought up myriad other topics in their letters that cover the field of ideas from predator control to captive breeding, wind-energy development, hunting, grazing and beyond. The governor received support for the order in general and pointed criticism as well.
“The Wyoming plan departs from scientifically valid protection levels in ways that undermine the conservation of sage-grouse in the Core Areas established under the plan for their protection,” a coalition of 10 groups, including Western Watersheds Project, wrote.
The entire sage grouse issue “is fake,” wrote John Bowers of Douglas. “Just as the global warming scam is intended to saddle the U.S. with a layer of economy-killing and communist global governance, so the intent of the Sage Grouse issue is to strangle American mining and petroleum,” he wrote.
Some commenters remembered the bird itself and the role of nature. “Local residents remember the sage grouse numbers so great that when a flock took flight it sounded like a jet airplane taking off,” Sweetwater commissioners wrote.
Cindy Rose, who wrote that she is a lifelong Wyomingite, objected to oil and gas development dominating the natural scene. She said she is “sick to death every time I go out into our beautiful Big Empty and see more and more drilling rigs scattered about the landscape.”
“All oil, gas and coal does not need to be extracted at once,” she wrote. “In your debate, you are contemplating the world’s future as well as that of some silly little birds.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.