Sage grouse advocates face new hurdles

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By Ashleigh Fox

The Sheridan Press

Via Wyoming News Exchange

SHERIDAN — A estimated 37 percent of the greater sage grouse population in the United States calls Wyoming home, and many Wyomingites lead the charge for preservation of the species. Sage grouse was taken off of the endangered species list in 2015, and conservationists believe recently proposed amendments by the Trump administration will worsen efforts on preservation of the species.

Three federally-proposed sage grouse plan amendments eliminate sagebrush focal areas — land designations with the highest level of protection under Obama-era plans — and several weaken limits on oil and gas development, according to a press release from the Western Watersheds Project out of Wyoming.

“It was the conversion of sage grouse habitats to natural gas fields that drove this iconic bird to the brink of extinction in the first place,” said Erik Molvar with the Western Watersheds Project. “With the continued erosion of limitations on drilling, the next oil and gas boom is likely to spell doom for the large number of remaining grouse populations.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said he will review an environmental impact statement and continue to work with agencies to help reach a solution that’s best for Wyoming and its sage grouse population.

Wyoming, though, has not relied on federal plans to help preserve sage grouse. When the species lost its endangered species designation in 2015, an amalgamation of interest groups came together at the state level to put together a plan to conserve habitat for sage grouse.

“That really is the shining star in grassroots and collaborative, locally-driven efforts for conservation of a species and habitat,” Sheridan County district conservationist Andrew Cassiday said.

Sage grouse remain a difficult species to protect because of their extensive range of land use.

“One of the primary threats to sage grouse is development in any form really because they are a landscape species,” Cassiday said. “They use very large areas of the landscape as home range.”

Documentations of individual birds reached upward of 100 miles of movement over the course of a year. Those birds travel far but return to the mating dance grounds — known as lek — during mating season. The birds feast on and live among sagebrush, and the species is threatened by predators including crows, ravens, red fox, raccoons, magpies and skunks. Preservation efforts focus on three main areas — development, rangeland sustainability and predators.

A 2015 sage grouse initiative by the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped limit development and instituted timing stipulations for work within designated core areas in proximity to lek sites.

Landowners in and around the designated sage grouse protection areas help maintain and preserve land as well as utilize an incentive put forth by NRCS that provides cost benefits for landowners to do physical or other management practices on their land to protect local sage grouse populations.

“One of the colloquialisms that has come out of this effort is, ‘What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,’” Cassiday said. “There’s a direct link between sustainable rangeland resources that benefit ranching operations and sage grouse. They are not mutually exclusive; they are one in the same.”

Protection of habitats also keeps the land resilient to drought and fire, thus preserving ranch land.

Sheridan County rangelands are generally in very good condition.

“We have landowners who are aware of that and attentive managers,” Cassiday said.

While federal regulations, or lack thereof, might create difficulties in protecting sage grouse, several entities in Wyoming and Sheridan County will continue fighting to preserve the population.

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