By Mark Davis
Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL — With the effort still proving too pricey, a Powell game bird farm has again shelved its plans to raise sage grouse.
Over the past two years, Diamond Wing Game Birds has sought to become certified to collect wild sage grouse eggs and attempt captive breeding.
The Wyoming Legislature cleared the way for captive breeding in 2017, as part of a controversial effort to bolster wild sage grouse populations. Diamond Wing Game Birds has been the only company to apply for certification under the new law, halting those efforts in early 2018, then trying again this year under new ownership.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department relaxed one regulation this time around, giving Diamond Wing permission to collect wild grouse eggs closer to this area instead of in southern Wyoming. However, a regulation requiring a separate hatchery and rearing facility for the sage grouse was again a sticking point for the company.
The Game and Fish says a new facility is critical to guard against the spread of disease, but the financial burden was too much even for Diamond Wing, which is the state’s largest game bird farm.
Private enterprise is running out of time to take advantage of Wyoming’s sage grouse-rearing law, which has a five-year sunset clause.
Then-Diamond Wing owner Diemer True of Casper prophetically said two years ago that, “If it’s just us standing out there by ourselves, it’s going to be tough.”
True sold the company last year to Dennis Brabec, a petroleum engineer and co-owner and general manager of Fiddleback Farms.
But True refuses to walk away from his dream. Last week, he received IRS approval for the Diamond Greater Sage Grouse Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that will seek donations to help finance a future venture. True said relying on donations may be the only way a private enterprise like Diamond Wing can afford captive breeding.
The failed first attempts to get the experiment off the ground have come as somewhat of a relief for those in the scientific community who protested the law.
Brian Rutledge, director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative for the National Audubon Society, has raised hundreds of species in captivity during more than 30 years of directing zoos. He said captive breeding should only be used as a last-ditch effort when you have no other options. Rutledge also opposes using private enterprise to do so.
“There’s a reason these things are done by not-for-profits,” he said. “The idea that the data gleaned from captive breeding would be proprietary data owned by a private enterprise goes against everything we should be trying to do.”
True disagrees. It’s the energy entrepreneur’s hope that proving the possibility of captive breeding will help keep sage grouse from being listed as a threatened or endangered species and receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act.
True said a listing could cost more than $5 billion in lost economic activity in the West.
“We have in the past been able to eliminate the threat of having species classified as endangered,” True said. “If we can be successful, which I handicap as very likely based on the success of the Calgary Zoo, this could be an assurance that we won’t have to face the bird being listed.”
In 2017 — after three years of work — biologists at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada, were the first to breed the species in captivity. Zoo officials released 66 sage grouse into the wild last fall; they have yet to release data on how those released birds are faring.
The sage grouse’s status is more precarious in Canada, where wild populations have plummeted from hundreds of thousands of birds to about 250.
With backing from the Canadian government, the zoo has spent millions building the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Center and researching rearing techniques; it initially received $5 million from the government.
True is still researching the costs associated with the process and was reluctant to guess how much it would cost to get a Wyoming facility ready for an attempt to certify next year.
They are quickly running out of time. In the recent legislative session, Wyoming Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, pressed to extend the sunset clause and give would be grouse raisers more time. Harshman asked to push the window from five to 10 years, but he never brought the bill the House floor. Barring a change, future applicants only have three years left.
Other rearing attempts with different grouse species have been small. A federally funded attempt to raise the critically endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chicken has mostly failed to augment wild populations.
Advocates for the imperiled sage grouse say habitat conservation is the only way to ensure healthy populations.
“We continue to discuss whether we have a sage grouse problem or a habitat problem,” Rutledge said. “Where we have quality habitat, we have sage grouse. Where habitat is in decline, sage grouse struggle.”
In Canada, loss and fragmentation of habitat were cited as key reasons for crashing populations. In 1998, it was predicted there was a 90 percent chance of extirpation of the species north of the U.S. border. Conservation groups here say they’re fighting to protect habitat as President Donald Trump’s administration has placed more importance on energy exploration and development than habitat conservation.
Recently, Rutledge and a group of conservationists sent a letter protesting the sale of leases by the Bureau of Land Management in core sage grouse habitat. The species was nearly listed under the Endangered Species Act under then-President Barack Obama, but was saved from federal protections through a 2015 collaboration involving many stakeholders that promised to preserve core sage grouse habitat.
Former Wyoming sage grouse program coordinator Tom Christensen recently wrote to Gov. Mark Gordon with concerns about the lease sales in top sage grouse habitat.
“We must have support from all levels of government and the private sector to be successful,” Christensen said. “Without this support, we will certainly fail, resulting in altered landscapes detrimental to native wildlife, local communities, industry and the nation as a whole.”
However, Bob Budd, the chairman of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, says concerns about development in core habitat are exaggerated.
“Leasing isn’t the issue; the issue is how development occurs, if development occurs at all,” Budd said. “You can’t just go to the BLM to get a permit and do what you want (in Wyoming).”
Budd said all 11 states with sage grouse habitat have conservation plans and are working together to conserve the species. He doesn’t see an imminent threat of any of the states “going off the rails” and reversing course.
“We are still doing things the same way we have always been doing it and I think we have a very good track record,” he said. “The development that is occurring is happening outside core areas and everything goes through a very tough screening process.”
Rutledge, who works closely with Budd, said it’s something on which the two disagree.
“Other states’ efforts may not be as strong as the Wyoming effort,” Rutledge said.
He is quick to point out that as goes the sage grouse, so go several hundred species in the sagebrush ecosystem.
“We have to return carrying capacity to the habitat we have,” Rutledge said.