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No grouse listing

Jan 3, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

New BLM guidelines testify to work group's effectiveness

An only-in-Wyoming scenario is playing out this winter as federal officials prepare to enact updated regulations for the management of land that is suitable habitat for the sage grouse.

Nowhere are these federal decisions more important than in Wyoming, which has more sage grouse habitat under federal management than any other state by percentage. While other states may have more total acreage of habitat than Wyoming, a greater percentage Wyoming's total area consists of sage grouse habitat.

Wyoming continues to earn plaudits for its proactive approach to grouse management. A rare, perhaps even unique, alliance on the issue has brought private landowners, local government officials, energy industry leaders, and federal land and wildlife managers together for the purpose of working cooperatively rather than antagonistically toward mutually agreeable policies on the sage grouse.

That may sound like simple common sense, and it is, but common sense does not necessarily rule in the realm of land and wildlife management. In fact, the more typical course of action over the past 40 years has been for industry to ignore a problem or try to minimize it, and for regulators to impose impossible requirements that widely are seen as intended to fail so that a species can be listed as threatened or endangered.

The sage grouse certainly fits the standard profile of an animal headed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. But this time, the aforementioned coalition of interested parties opted not to ignore one another, not to deal with each other only through the courts, and for some years now have been cooperating on a course of action that has kept the grouse from being listed.

Neither the conscientious developer nor the rational conservationist wants a species to be listed as threatened or endangered. For the former, the consequences are obvious: no more wells, no pipelines, few roads, and endless courtroom wars before the situation can change. For the latter, a listing means that a species truly is in danger of becoming extinct. A far more preferable situation is for the animal to be able to survive in its natural habitat without elaborate human protections. A listing is a last resort.

In the most recent development, the Federal Bureau of Land Management has recommended a more moderate habitat plan than some had wanted, but it is more stringent than energy developers or agricultural interests would have preferred.

That recommendation was to be expected. One glance at the composition of the negotiating panel makes clear that neither the developers nor the conservationists would get everything they wanted. If they could, then there would be no need for the working group.

And, so, here we are. The BLM is proposing that no more than 5 percent of the surface area in a given parcel of grouse habitat can be disturbed in a certain amount of time for the purposes of human enterprise. On paper that doesn't look like much, but it is a heck of a lot better than the restrictions that would be in place if the sage grouse were given a formal endangered species listing.

If approved, the BLM plan will give developers an opportunity to show that they can operate within these restrictions. It also gives them time to use their ever-expanding innovation and creativity to use the land that they can disturb as efficiently and ingeniously as possible. Again, that's an opportunity that an endangered species listing probably would not afford.

Under the working group format, the conservationists acknowledge the economic value of much of the grouse habitat. There is thought to be a lot of natural gas out there, but it cannot be accessed if the developers are locked out of the grouse habitat.

Conversely, there are far fewer sage grouse out there than there used to be, and the developers acknowledge that if that trend continues unabated, then putting more gas wells, roads or more livestock herds in sage grouse areas will be out of the question.

The BLM recommendation signals that an endangered species listing for the grouse has been staved off again. Now, let's go about the business of proving that we can develop the underground resources of this property without decimating the birds that live on it.

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