Interior Department finalizes sage grouse rules

By Heather Richards

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Discord prevailed Friday over an imperiled bird’s future in Wyoming, despite the official end of a one-and-a-half-year battle of words concerning how the Trump administration should balance sage grouse and energy development on public lands. 

The Interior Department announced the final revisions to sage grouse management plans, which include removing language that prioritizes oil and gas activity outside of the bird’s habitat, increasing exemption opportunities to existing rules, adding an off-switch to the extreme measures triggered by a degrading habitat once that area begins to improve, and ending a federal obligation on oil and gas operators to improve habitat they’ve damaged.

The recent disagreements over this bird traced back to summer of 2017. Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke kick-started a revision process on sage grouse management plans after President Donald Trump took office. The bird plans were among many federal policy approaches and regulations from the Obama administration that came under the Trump administration’s crosshairs that year. Changing the sage grouse rules addressed two key priorities outlined by the administration: deregulation and energy dominance. 

Both are would-be winners from the perspective of Wyoming politics. But the bird’s long-term success is critical to the state’s continued ability to develop fossil fuels and the plans are rooted in Wyoming work. The state pushed back on Zinke’s initial approach, advising caution for plans that were bartered across Wyoming tables and with a bevy of Westernstakeholders, from energy companies to environmentalists. 

Yet with a final decision Friday, the result of these changes remains unclear. Some say the chicken-sized bird is in terrible trouble, others that little has changed for the bird – at least not in Wyoming. 

“I think we are right where we were when it all started,” said Bob Budd, chairman of the state’s sage grouse management team.

Budd and other leaders had argued early on that the federal plans could use updates to align them with Wyoming’s. 

Responses from sage grouse officials in Wyoming reflected his opinion. They focused on Wyoming’s state strategy – which provided the framework eventually adopted by the Obama administration. It protects the best habitat for the bird with the strictest rules, while attempting to keep other activities limited in the bird’s best grounds. 

Gov. Mark Gordon said in a statement Friday that “a diversity of perspectives” had led to the Wyoming plans – inducing industry, agriculture and conservationists, and that the Trump administration’s changes to federal plans had been marginal. 

“I believe the updates are surgical and recognize that the Greater sage-grouse is a state-managed species,” Gordon said.

Wyoming’s confidence, where it exists, is rooted in its executive order. Starting with former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Wyoming has been governed under a maxim to keep the grouse and energy development balanced so the bird isn’t listed. Gov. Matt Mead, who preceded Gordon in office, led the state during the Obama administration as federal plans were being developed and finalized. He’s been credited for his work on the grouse during that time and as a mediating voice under the Trump administration. 

Energy developers who’ve been partners in the sage grouse strategies, like Jonah Energy, have downplayed the concerns that energy has or will go too far under the new plans. 

Paul Ulrich, a member of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team and government affairs director for Jonah Energy, said the state maintains a high standard that industry has to live by. 

“Wyoming, I still firmly believe, industry is going to always do the right thing,” he said.

Others say the Wyoming approach may have to be stronger now that federal plans are weakened. 

Former Wyoming Game and Fish Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen said in a statement from the Wyoming Outdoor Council that the Trump administration has put energy before the bird, noting recent oil and gas lease sales that offered pristine habitat in central Wyoming for potential development. 

When the best habitat that exists for the bird is leased to oil and gas, it raises concerns, Christiansen explained in an interview. 

There are good things in the plans, common sense changes that work well on the ground, he said. The feds are now using the same habitat maps as Wyoming, for example. 

But the plans are not what they were, he explained. There isn’t one unified front across multiple states. Instead, more decisions are made at the project level, and state management plans, some of which are stronger than others, have greater influence. 

“Those aren’t necessarily either bad or good. But ‘there is less certainty’ is the bottom line,” he said. 

And certainty is why the bird avoided an endangered species listing three years ago. 

A host of environmental groups contend that prioritizing oil and gas outside of habitat, forcing companies to pay to replace damaged habitat and limiting exemption to the rules — all aspects of the earlier plan that were removed — are critical for the plans being successful. 

“We now have plans that are less protective from the biggest threats to sage grouse, and those protections that are remaining are less certain to be applied and do not work together across the landscape,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, in a statement Friday. “So, of course, we’re concerned and the grouse, if they got to weigh in, would be concerned too.”

Much of the conversation around sage grouse centers around the Endangered Species Act, a bedrock law in environmental work that seizes considerable authority over wildlife from states when other efforts to save the species have failed. 

In Wyoming sage grouse habitat, that’s a change with significant implications, as the sage grouse lives across much of the state and shares habitat with the oil and gas industry that undergirds the economy here. 

Oil and gas activity would be heavily restricted if sage grouse were given that level of protection. A major complaint from conservationists Friday was that industry was getting protection, not the bird. 

Budd of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team said he doesn’t see it that way. He said of more than 700 wells spudded in Wyoming last year, only 27 were in “core” habitat – areas defined as the best habitat, carrying the most birds. 

The federal government removed language that environmentalists liked, but as long as the result is limitation on drilling near the bird, the plans are working, he said. 

“There has not been some massive sea change in our commitment to sage grouse,” Budd said. “We’ve got a lot invested in that bird.”