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State hopes to stay out of federal quarrel on sage grouse

Jul 7, 2013 - By Don Warfield, Staff Writer

Crippling restrictions on Wyoming's mineral and agricultural commodities industries are a certainty within two years if western industry and government leaders do not become more actively involved in sage grouse endangered species controversy.

That was the message delivered to two Wyoming Mining Association audiences by former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Northwest Mining Association Executive Director Laura Skaer. WMA held its annual convention in Sheridan.

To list or not to list?

Some environmentalists have pushed for years to have the sage grouse listed as an endangered species. The Bureau of Land Management is under a court mandate to decide no later than Sept. 30, 2015, whether listing is necessary.

Endangered species designation would severely curtail or eliminate industrial and agricultural uses on huge swaths of both public and private land in Wyoming and across the West.

Freudenthal, Skaer and other speakers agreed that Wyoming itself is not the problem. Under Freudenthal's administration, Wyoming developed a Core Areas strategy that protects sage grouse and their habitat. Freudenthal's call for greater involvement by industry and current political leaders appeared to mirror that proactive stance.

Unique position

Bob Budd is executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. He headed up a task force that developed the Core Area strategy.

"Wyoming is unique," Budd said.

The state has the most sage grouse and the largest area of habitat. Fifteen million acres of the birds' 40 million U.S. acres are in the state. At the same time, Wyoming is home to several of the nation's largest commodities industries. Thus far, the two have for the most part successfully co-existed.

Caleb Hiner, a BLM senior resource advisor, called the Core Areas concept "an excellent model" that is being implemented in other regions.

The success of the Core Areas is no guarantee the Wyoming will escape listing, however.

According to Budd, the courts have ordered BLM to regard sage grouse habitat as a "range" issue, regardless of state boundaries. In March 2010 the USFWS made the sage grouse a potential candidate for the endangered listing by classifying it as Warranted But Precluded (WBT) species.

Wyoming could be dragged into the listing trap, despite having implemented a successful management plan, because such states as Montana and Colorado have no viable plans, Budd said.

Skaer agrees with Budd but sees a different motive on the part of BLM.

"This is not about protecting the birds," she said, "It is about 'stop doing that' [developing resources.]"

Skaer believes that BLM's intent is evidenced by its disregard of regulatory processes already in place. BLM's guiding policy on sage grouse, issued in December 2011, is the National Technical Team Report, or NTT.

In a May 2013 statement, Skaer claimed that analysis by an independent biologist hired by NWMA "clearly shows that the NTT Report was designed to champion a policy to impose widespread, unprecedented land-use restrictions in 11 western states with sage grouse habitat...."

NTT was designed to circumvent forthcoming Environmental Impact Statements being prepared by BLM to address sage grouse protections, as well as the U.S. Forest Service land-use plan amendment process, Skaer said. She has issued a compilation of peer reviews highlighting NTT's scientific flaws.

BLM is intent on implementing the flawed NTT Report despite the fact that adequate regulatory authority already exists, Skaer said.

The "USFWS' WBP determination found that the conservation measures in BLM's Manual 6840: Special Status Species Management could [emphasis in original] be an adequate regulatory tool" if BLM were to "properly and consistently" implement it, she said.

BLM is currently developing Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that will evaluate new sage grouse conservation measures. Skaer stated, "Unfortunately, it appears BLM has reverse-engineered the entire EIS process by starting out with the NTT Report as the basis for the agency's Preferred Alternative and working the process backwards to justify this outcome."

Wyoming has 85 percent of the nation's remaining habitat suitable for sage grouse, Budd said, but that does not mean that the entirety of that habitat should be off limits to development. Eighty-six percent of the birds exist on 24 percent of the habitat, he said.

He urged the conventioneers to promote the success of the industry's sage grouse protection and not focus on the gloom and doom of the issue.

Comments from the convention floor reflected anger that industry is being blamed for perceived damage to sage grouse and their habitat while other factors are ignored. Fire, invasive species and predation were cited. Most of the presenters agreed that such factors must receive more attention in the total picture.

Freudenthal had earlier told the gathering that "a lot of the science is bad" on the sage grouse issue but that denial or ignoring the issue will certainly lead to an endangered species listing.

In a very real sense, the sage grouse issue is of a piece with other threats to Wyoming, in Freudenthal's view. Not the least of the reasons that attacks on the commodities industries succeed is that we have a dysfunctional Congress, he said.

"Don't pretend that we don't have a policy" on environmental issues, he told the group. Congress' dysfunction allows the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior room to manipulate public policy to their liking, he said.

Public ignorance of the realities of commodities production and use has also contributed to the "headwind" the industries face, he said. "We have facilitated the ignorance by putting our heads in the sand," Freudenthal said.

Skaer cited the need for unified action by the Western Governor's Association (WGA) on the sage grouse issue. In that context, she noted that Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has thus far opted out of a closed-door meeting of WGA with new Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. She asked the audience to contact Mead and urge him to participate in the meeting.

"We have to live in the world we find," Freudenthal said.

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