By Patrick Filbin
Gillette News Record
Via Wyoming News Exchange
GILLETTE — On an early April morning, Erika Peckham slowly pulled her pickup off a gravel road onto a two-track path that is mostly hidden by short sagebrush and early spring grass.
Most people wouldn’t have seen the two-track. It was well hidden for a reason. Peckham is a wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. These are familiar roads because it’s her job to use them as sparingly as possible and, in a way, hide them.
“I don’t want to get too close because otherwise we’ll disrupt them,” she said, throwing the truck in park and rolling down her driver’s side window.
She grabbed a pair of binoculars from the center console and stuck them out the window, peering at the sage a few dozen yards ahead.
“They’ll create this big group of males and they’ll all focus on one female and try to impress her,” Peckham said. “Eventually, she’ll choose one she wants to breed with. They do this every morning.”
Peckham lowered her binoculars and took in the landscape. Then she focused back on the female.
“She’s looking pretty disinterested this morning,” Peckham observed.
It was April in Wyoming, also known as greater sage grouse mating season, a time across the state and the greater western region of the country when a large number of people focus their attention to a strange, peculiar and impactful species of bird.
Wyoming’s greater sage grouse is a large, chubby, funny-looking bird that in males, can exhibit several shapes, postures and sizes. The bird has long been a treasure and a staple for the unique landscape of western America and, more specifically, Wyoming.
The bird also has been at the center of years-long debates between conservationists, environmentalists, energy producers and even private ranchers and farmers.
In the last decade or so, greater sage grouse populations have diminished, which raised eyebrows around the Cowboy State and region as some answers to why some groups of sage grouse — leks — pointed toward energy production.
Oil and natural gas development has been noted as a cause for some of the diminishing numbers of male sage grouse and leks in Wyoming, which boasts the largest population of greater sage grouse in the United States.
Peckham said sage grouse are very attached to their areas. When energy production developers lease land to extract minerals, that could disrupt certain habitats, making the land unsustainable for such a vulnerable species.
This battle came to a head around 2014 and 2015 when sage grouse were petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. As Peckham put it, no one wanted that across the board.
Conservationists didn’t want the listing because it would mean the bird was in trouble. The oil and gas industry didn’t want it because that would mean even more strict protections of the birds and limitations to when and where they could drill. Ranchers didn’t want it because of the potential to limit grazing to protect greater sage grouse habitat.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said the threat of listing the fowl as endangered is more a political statement for some rather than an effort at conservation.
“Clearly, you don’t want this put on the listing,” he said during a Friday visit to Gillette. “You don’t want this on the Endangered Species list because of the impact to the economy of the state.”
He also said a listing wouldn’t address the major threats to greater sage grouse in Wyoming. Humans have dropped to No. 4 on the list of factors that impact sage grouse habitat, he said, behind predators, fire and drought.
Also, drilling technology has progressed to the point where the surface footprint of producing oil and natural gas is minimal, Barrasso said.
“If it weren’t the sage grouse, it would be something else with these groups,” he said. “They will always look for some mascot to point to when the real target is fossil fuels.”
In September 2015, Interior Secretary Sally Jewel under President Barack Obama announced the sage grouse would not be listed as an endangered species. That marked a win for all involved, but people concerned with the issues surrounding sage grouse haven’t been completely satisfied.
When President Donald Trump was elected, his Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, wanted to review land-use policies and even proposed amendments that would have eliminated core areas for sage grouse and loosened several oil and gas restrictions. Trump has recently reiterated his intention to do so, which has sparked more opposition.
Last month, a consortium of conservation groups filed a lawsuit to block administration plans to allow more drilling, mining and other exploration they claim will harm grouse.
Erik Molvar is executive director for the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, which filed the lawsuit. He called the protections in place “optional and inadequate” and said they have “no hope of maintaining even marginal (protections).”
Despite claims by groups like Molvar’s, Wyoming is widely considered the model for best practices to manage and protect greater sage grouse, Barrasso said.
“Wyoming really has been leading the say for a long time,” he said, adding that the Cowboy State was the blueprint for the federal government when it came up with its protections. “Wyoming people have come together and done what we need to do to protect the habitat and protect the bird.”
He credits a growing list of governors for keeping up and advancing greater sage grouse policy.
Core areas for the fowl were implemented as part of former Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s landmark 2008 executive order and conservation strategy that has been slightly modified over the years, but mostly kept in place and is known as the blueprint for sage grouse conservation.
Former Gov. Matt Mead pushed back several times against the Trump administration, cautioning against drastic changes to sage grouse habitat as Zinke and others petitioned to review orders.
“It started when Dave Freudenthal was governor and he did a great job,” Barrasso said. “Then it continued with Matt Mead as governor, and he did a great job. Now Mark Gordon is governor and he’s going to do a great job too.”
Even as top officials at the federal level under Trump continue to review agreements that could harm greater sage grouse populations, the state of Wyoming and some dedicated working groups have taken it upon themselves to put together a plan to conserve habitat for sage grouse.
In 2015, the same year sage grouse were saved from the Endangered Species Act, a collection of working groups came up with plans to conserve sage grouse leks while still allowing for oil and gas production and keeping lands open for grazing.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service was a big player in the new rules.
Mead also was ahead of the charge following Freudenthal. The NRCS helped implement timing stipulations for work within designated core areas during mating season and other times of the year and also added a 2-mile buffer around leks during mating season.
Peckham said that when sage grouse are born, they can nest within 2 miles of their mating place.
Some thought the oil and gas industry would be upset by the rules, but the sage grouse protections were developed around the same time as a fundamental shift in drilling practices evolved.
The majority of drilling now, as many Campbell County residents and workers will understand, is straight down and then runs horizontally for miles underground without disturbing the surface. This process helps limit disturbances to sage grouse and other habitats.
Dan Thiele is the Wildlife Management Coordinator at the Sheridan Region of Game and Fish Office. Thiele said that in northeast Wyoming, lek sizes are more stable and healthier than most people may think.
A lot of that has to do with what Wyoming has done proactively, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do.
“We still have a lot of concerns anytime we’re dealing with a population that is so vulnerable,” Thiele said.
Campbell County’s sage grouse population
Sage grouse are famously known to be hard to track. Thiele has been at it for more than 20 years in northeast Wyoming and said that sage grouse populations in northeast Wyoming are different from other parts of the state and region for many reasons.
The biggest one being the elevation and dry habitat the birds depend on.
Today, the biggest threat to Campbell County’s sage grouse population is West Nile virus.
“Due to the low elevation we have here in this corner of the state, sage grouse have a hard time bouncing back from West Nile,” Thiele said. “There’s just no immunity to that disease.”
Thiele said that about 15 years ago, West Nile virtually wiped out several leks in northeast Wyoming. Those numbers have slowly started to reestablish, but West Nile continues to be a conservation issue with several stakeholders.
In Campbell County, the leks seem to be more fragmented and separated from each other as opposed to some of the leks that settle in southwest Wyoming.
“We’re on the periphery,” Thiele said. “We do tend to see lower numbers and fewer lek sits because of that.”
Thiele also mentioned that significant energy development has caused some leks in Campbell, Crook and Sheridan counties to disperse and not return.
Sage grouse populations have ebbed and flowed in the last 10 years. While it’s difficult to get an accurate count of the critters, federal agencies estimate there are fewer than 500,000 greater sage grouse in the western United States.
Observers will visit active sage grouse leks at least three times to try and establish and average how many males are there posturing for mates. A lek is an area where the small birds gather in the spring to mate, usually with a number of males displaying to attract a female.
According to a 2018 report by the Game and Fish Department, northeast Wyoming has one of the lowest average male lek attendance rates in the state, averaging 13 males per active lek in 2018 compared to the statewide average of 26 males.
To compare, there used to be 30 males per lek between 1967 and 1969 in northeast Wyoming.
Most leks in this part of the state have fewer than 20 males.
Starting in 2010, the number of males surveyed fell off significantly from 1,346 to 635 from 2009 to 2010.
That number slowly increased to 1,065 in 2015 and peaked at 1,708 in 2016, marking a high of 19.2 average males per lek that were surveyed.
A drop from 2017 to 2018 is significant, where the average males per lek fell from 20.1 to 13.8, Thiele said. Some of that had to do with a wildfire that destroyed thousands of acres of sage grouse habitat in Sheridan County near the Montana border.
Fires wipe out sagebrush, which is the primary source of food for sage grouse, especially in the winter, and when that is wiped out that opens the door to invasive species like cheat grass.
In northeast Wyoming, 75% of known leks are found on private land with the remaining 25% on BLM, U.S. Forest Service and state-owned lands.
Because most sage grouse are found on private land, it’s tough to protect important habitats from a conservation perspective.
That’s where private landowners — mainly ranchers — come in.
JD Hill is vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and region manager for Sheridan, Crook, Campbell and Weston counties.
Hill said that the northeast corner of the state is in a unique situation when it comes to grazing issues. Because there are so few federally managed lands in this area, ranchers have a wide latitude of where their cattle can graze.
“We pretty well dictate and manage our lands with the help of a lot of different stakeholders in this conservation effort,” Hill said. “Up here, water is our main issue. That’s what constrains us the most.”
Hill said that it’s the Stock Growers Association’s stance that having the state manage the sage grouse is the way to go. The less the federal government is involved, the better off everyone will be.
“Our goals are all really similar,” Hill said. “We’re a large group of different stakeholders and every one of us has a different dog in the fight, but we’re not at odds as much as other people think.”
Hill said that conservationists, ranchers and developers have done a great job of meeting in the middle more often than not in the last four to five years.
“Our relationship in the last few years has been beneficial for everyone involved,” Hill said.
Thiele said that he and a handful of private landowners have been working on cleaning up certain reservoirs to help prevent the spread of West Nile. He cited it as just another example of how different sides have been getting along well in recent years.
Hill, like a lot of Wyoming, was unsure of what the Trump administration may do. He said he’d rather have Wyoming be at the head of the table.
“Wyoming has a good solution because it was crafted by stakeholders and we don’t want to change that up too much,” he said. “We had folks from livestock, energy folks, wildlife people craft a solution (and) everyone gave a little bit of ground, but it was all for keeping that bird from being listed.”
Governor Gordon has largely followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in his first four months as Wyoming’s governor.
In January, he sided with conservationists that say it’s right for Wyoming to require developers to make up for and pay for impacts to greater sage grouse habitat if it is damaged. The Trump administration had tried to get rid of that requirement.
In March, Gordon was at the center of a sage grouse controversy when the Bureau of Land Management agreed to lease more than 23,000 acres of sage grouse habitat in an area called the “Golden Triangle,” which is home to the highest concentration of grouse in the world.
The sale earned the BLM and the state more than $400,000, with acres selling for as low as $2 an acre to as high as $38 an acre. The leases were bought for oil and gas development.
Gordon stood by the sale and declined to postpone it, saying that the protective measures in place weren’t being broken.
Recently, Gordon opened up a public comment period to inform the public of any changes he might make to the executive order while stressing that the primary elements of the core area strategy and protections for the bird will not change.
There has been several sage grouse experiments around the state and some failed ones that are hoping to preserve populations here and in the region.
Most recently, Leslie Schreiber, Game and Fish’s new sage grouse program coordinator, helped move grouse from Rawlins across state lines to North Dakota.
Back in Campbell County, for the most part things are good for grouse.
Peckham, the wildlife biologist, said in her 10 years working for Game and Fish, she has seen some leks blink out and not return. The numbers have certainly looked better.
“It was a bigger deal back when the birds were petitioned to be listed,” she said. “Since that didn’t happen, it seems like what we’re doing is working.”