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Wyoming's better way

Jul 15, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Our work on sage grouse protections ought to be a model for the nation

Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal is correct in hoping that Wyoming can keep itself more or less separate from the federal quarrel about possible listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species.

But as the wise ex-governor knows, wishing won't make it so. Wyoming might have no choice but to get involved up to its elbows.

Freudenthal spoke at the annual convention of the Wyoming Mining Association, a group whose members are keenly interested in the future of federal sage grouse protections. From oil and gas to coal, from bentonite to uranium, a lot of land used for energy and minerals development in Wyoming is smack in the middle of prime sage grouse habitat.

That is the typical recipe for federal involvement. Sage grouse numbers have been in decline in the West, and there are strong voices calling for more strict federal protections of the species, up to and including placing the bird on the endangered species list.

To its great credit, Wyoming saw this coming years ago and entered into a courageous and largely unprecedented approach at the state level intended to keep the federal listing from being necessary.

It has been an admirable effort. Land managers, environmental activists, energy developers and agricultural interests came together in working groups to evaluate the grouse situation. They applied common sense, local knowledge and local sensibilities to the issue, removed deliberately from the normal level of participation of federal regulators and some national conservationist interests.

It has not been a perfect setup, but invaluable discussion and real compromise have been achieved. A partnership has been formed rather than an adversarial confrontation. That is an exemplary achievement in and of itself.

Progress has been made at a more rapid rate than could have been possible had the federal government been directing the work. Perhaps best of all, attorneys and judges have largely been absent from Wyoming's process. This has not become a courtroom battle - a highly welcome change from the kind of legal stalemates that have characterized Wyoming's dealings with endangered wolves and grizzly bears.

Ideally, other states and the federal government would embrace Wyoming's example, as would developers and conservationists in other states. But the word "ideally" rarely goes together with government/industry/conservationist interactions.

Wyoming is a small-population state with wildlife and energy issues of national proportions. That makes us an ideal laboratory for new approaches to these issues. Our efforts regarding the sage grouse ought to serve as a model for potentially rival entities across the nation - not just on sage grouse but on other matters where developers, governments and environmentalists are likely to disagree.

Former Gov. Freudenthal was in office when some of the most-pitched of these old-style battles were waged in Wyoming. He deserves to be listened to when he says there is a better way. Our state is proving it.

This is not to say that the sage grouse question has been settled in Wyoming, but it is apparent that much more progress has been made in reaching a long-term, workable scenario than would have been possible under the established pattern -- namely, argument, dictates from the federal government, and an endless series of lawsuits.

Regardless of one's political or ideological turn of mind, one thing virtually everyone can agree upon is that the government's slow pace and seeming inflexibility in recognizing non-government solutions to problems can be maddening.

Will the sage grouse be another case in point? As the government and its familiar cast of supporting players line up for what appears to be the same old kind of battle on the bird, Wyoming and the nation would be so much better served if the players in this tiresome game could recognize when a preferable course of action exists right in front of their faces.

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