By Hannah Wiest
The Sheridan Press
SHERIDAN — Eight working groups around the state of Wyoming dedicated to sage grouse conservation and habitat management have been asked to update their sage grouse conservation plans to incorporate new policies and information made available since the plans were completed more than five years ago.
Comments on the new Sage Grouse Conservation Plan Addendum for the Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Working Group are being accepted through Nov. 16. The group will also hold an open house from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Campbell County Library in Gillette.
The Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Working Group consists of 13 members who represent the Game and Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management, conservation districts and organizations, energy and power industries (coal, oil, gas, electricity) and ranchers and hunters.
Dan Thiele, a member of the local working group and Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist in Buffalo, said the addendum includes new research and conservation strategies developed since the Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Conservation Plan was completed in 2006. It also includes official adoption of Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s and Gov. Matt Mead’s executive orders regarding sage grouse that were issued after the original plan was released, in addition to conservation practices prioritized by the working group for legislative funding.
The executive orders from Govs. Freudenthal and Mead focus on “core population area” management of sage grouse, a concept approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 and 2010. This management strategy states that sage grouse conservation should focus on key habitat areas that support 80 percent of Wyoming’s sage grouse breeding population in breeding areas called leks, Thiele said.
The core areas encompass approximately 24 percent of the state, allowing for localized conservation measures. According to Executive Order 2011-5, having localized conservation will allow sufficient sage grouse conservation to prevent listing the bird as an endangered species.
This will in turn prevent potential economic hardship for Wyoming that could be caused by strict regulations on energy development that would come with an endangered listing.
“We wanted to show that we can maintain a sustainable and viable sage grouse population in a more limited area of the state,” Thiele said. “The idea was to provide opportunities for development outside of core areas, with some management guidelines that would help protect sage grouse outside of the core areas, too.”
The addendum to the conservation plan incorporates the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife listing of sage grouse as “warranted, but precluded,” which means there is enough evidence to list sage grouse as endangered but other animals are higher priority. The fish and wildlife service will make a decision by the end of fiscal year 2015 on whether sage grouse will be listed as endangered or threatened or removed from the candidate species list, Thiele said.
The Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Conservation Plan Addendum addresses management of federal lands in the Powder River Basin, particularly in regards to energy development, which is believed to be linked to declining sage grouse numbers since the working group’s 2006 conservation plan was released.
A BLM Instruction Memorandum adopted in 2010 is included in the updated conservation plan to address leasing of federal minerals and to provide consistency between the BLM’s management of energy development and Wyoming’s sage grouse conservation efforts.
The conservation plan addendum also delineates how the local working group will use funding appropriated to the group from the Wyoming legislature’s biennial sage grouse conservation fund.
Thiele said the working group has prioritized funding to be used to improve sage grouse habitats impacted by wildfires in northeast Wyoming and for reclamation of energy infrastructure since coal bed methane development has declined. Wells will be plugged, abandoned and reclaimed to provide habitat in areas that have the potential to benefit sage grouse populations.
The group also wants to fund research and education that promotes healthy rangeland management, Thiele said.
A copy of the Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Conservation Plan Addendum, as well as the original plan and the governors’ executive orders, can be found online at wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/wildlife-1000817.aspx#.
Comments can be submitted at the open house, emailed to Thiele at firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed or delivered to the Sheridan Region Game and Fish office at 700 Valley View Drive Sheridan, WY 82801.