SHERIDAN — A federal agency finalized a long-debated set of revisions regarding sage grouse management last week, sparking concerns about the changes interfering with Wyoming’s conservation efforts.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced revisions to federal sage grouse management plans that created more exemptions for development on lands crucial to the sage grouse’s habitat and eliminated some of the obligations developers would have to those environments.

Wyoming is home to the largest sage grouse population in the world, but the population of the iconic species has dwindled in recent years, which has led to a robust conservation campaign.

Wyoming Game and Fish’s Sheridan Region Wildlife Management Coordinator Dan Thiele, who is a member of the Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Working Group, said sage grouse management plans stem primarily from a 2015 executive order, signed by former Governor Dave Freudenthal, that called for the state to balance energy development with sage grouse conservation efforts to prevent the grouse from becoming listed as an endangered species.

Thiele said that order facilitated cooperation between a diverse range of interests — from conservationists to oil and gas developers — on sage grouse management.

Thiele said that order facilitated cooperation between a diverse range of interests — from conservationists to oil and gas developers — on sage grouse management.

“We have limited authority over what happens on the lands,” Thiele said. “We have to work with the other interests to manage what occurs on the landscapes.”

Sage grouse are entirely dependent on sagebrush grassland habitats, which means threats to those lands endanger the species as a whole.

“The big concern is that, populations have been decreasing over the last 30 to 50 years,” Thiele said.

Opinion is split over whether the latest federal revisions to sage grouse management will upset that compromise.

In a statement published by the Bureau of Land Management last week, Gov. Mark Gordon said the changes to the sage grouse management plan were modest and respected the state’s authority to oversee management of the species.

“I believe the updates are surgical and recognize that the greater sage-grouse is a state-managed species,” Gordon said.

Some conservationists, however, insist that the latest federal revisions pose a threat to Wyoming’s sage grouse. Bighorn Audubon Society President Jackie Canterbury said the changes will make swaths of land crucial to sage grouse vulnerable.

“The Trump administration will (have) reduced protections of 51 million acres of designated sage grouse habitat in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming,” Canterbury said. “To say that is not going to have an effect is absurd, and it’s not truthful.”

The changes will also make compensatory mitigation — which required industries operating on sage grouse lands to take steps to reduce their footprints — optional, Canterbury said, which could provide an expedited pathway for oil and gas development on sage grouse lands.

Canterbury said she expects the dueling interpretations of the federal revisions to come to a head and predicted that conservation groups will issue legal objections to the recent changes.

“I do know that (the revisions) are going to be challenged,” Canterbury said. “Because there are so many conservation groups committed to preserving the sage grouse.”