Core-area leasing and mitigation banking rules are atop the list of issues raised by 78 commenters who responded to Gov. Mark Gordon’s call for input on amending the state’s sage grouse conservation plan.
Gordon intends to modify the executive order implemented by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and amended by Gov. Matt Mead — Wyoming’s primary regulatory mechanism that seeks to protect the imperiled bird and keep it off the endangered species list while allowing other uses of state, federal and private land to continue. He’ll meet with the Sage Grouse Implementation Team in Cheyenne today and recommend changes to the lauded management regime.
Gordon has spent “a considerable amount of time” reading details in more than 414 pages of comments, SGIT chairman Bob Budd said Friday after meeting with Gordon.
Some recurring themes emerged in the comments, Budd said, “none of which were a surprise.”
The Trump administration’s leasing of core-area habitat for oil and gas exploration — an approach that appears to run contrary to the existing Wyoming order that seeks “prioritization of projects outside Core Population Areas” — figured prominently in the comment letters. Several letters specifically addressed the so-called Golden Triangle of world-class grouse habitat near Farson where the BLM has leased 23,000 acres for oil and gas development and plans to auction more.
A large number of commenters, including several local sage-grouse working groups, also seek changes to rules to allow mitigation and habitat replacement for some developments (see comments below). Today, there’s only one authorized mitigation bank in the state, commenters said — the Sweetwater River Conservancy involving Pathfinder Ranches in central Wyoming.
Many commenters said rules to offset impacts to grouse habitat when those impacts can’t be avoided should be changed to accomplish habitat restoration and protection close to the actual impacts rather than in a remote county.
Gordon has not wavered from statements he made earlier this year to WyoFile supporting the mitigation concept, Budd said. “It is important we have some mitigation,” Gordon said in January.
The governor, however, “felt that we’re not that far along,” in the development of new banks and methods of offsetting impacts, Budd said. Regarding prioritization of leasing outside core areas, Budd and the governor “didn’t talk about that one.”
Overall, “I honestly don’t see anything that is a huge game-changer in how we continue to manage for sage grouse,” Budd said. The reworking of the executive order “will not be a major overhaul,” an announcement of the SGIT meeting reads.
The core-area strategy is a linchpin of management regime established by the executive order. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed the policy of prioritizing “development outside Core Population Areas,” saying “if implemented by all landowners [it…] would provide adequate protection for sage-grouse and their habitats.”
But that prioritization “has all but been discontinued in practice by the BLM,” Ed Arnett and Steve Belinda wrote respectively for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation and North American Grouse Partnership. “…The current rate of leasing and potential development simply does not make good sense,” given that the executive order states that “all efforts” to direct that development “shall be made.”
They called for a state-federal master leasing plan to prioritize leasing outside core areas. Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Audubon Society also see the Wyoming strategy being eroded.
“We recommend that the State reemphasize its commitment to safeguarding core area habitats by maintaining and strengthening development prioritization standards irrespective of Federal efforts to undermine those standards through changes in their leasing and development priorities,” wrote Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Brian Rutledge, director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative for the National Audubon Society.
Joe Bohne, chairman of the Upper Snake River Working Group pointed to an example of how federal action has eviscerated the executive order. “Recent events, such as the decision to allow leases in the ‘Golden Triangle,’ cause us to question the ability of the Executive Order to protect Greater sage-grouse sufficiently,” he wrote. “This decision alone likely foreshadows the inability of the Executive Order to conserve Greater sage-grouse in Wyoming unless the Core Area policy is strengthened and enforced.”
The Golden Triangle area that’s being leased by the BLM contains the highest density of sage grouse on Earth, wrote Tom Christiansen, who served as the Game and Fish sage grouse leader until his recent retirement. Game and Fish Department maps four breeding-ground leks there with more than 100 males, including “the only lek in North America to exceed a count of 300 male sage-grouse.”
“Leasing and developing on the best sage-grouse habitat on the planet is not consistent with the goals and objectives of the EO,” Christiansen wrote.
The Wind River-Sweetwater River Local Sage Grouse Working Group also is worried, wrote Stan Harter, acting chairman for that coalition. “We are concerned with recent changes from the Trump Administration that ‘rolled-back’ rules pertaining to oil and natural gas leasing and development,” he wrote “We are concerned that these rule changes may severely erode the effectiveness of the previously established rangewide conservation strategies and partnerships.”
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation joined the chorus. “Based upon the way lease sales currently operate, we see no evidence that [prioritization outside core areas] is being applied,” wrote Joy Bannon, the federation’s policy director. The group is “therefore concerned that our federal partners are not adhering to the spirit and intent of [the core-area strategy].”
Wyoming’s sage grouse strategy recognizes a hierarchy of conservation priorities starting with avoidance of impacts, followed by minimization, then, as a last resort, compensating for unavoidable impacts. Mitigation banking — protecting, improving or preserving habitat in one place in exchange for damaging or destroying it elsewhere — is one approved way of offsetting unavoidable impacts to grouse habitat. Gordon’s call for comments produced a debate among mitigation banking advocates about how such banks should be used and regulated.
Ryan Lance, president of Pathfinder Ranches, that operates the Sweetwater River Conservancy, wrote 12 pages about why his operation should remain Wyoming’s mitigation bank. Others, including local working groups, a stock association and the Upper Green River Conservancy seek more banks across the state to enable mitigation closer to disturbances.
Pathfinder Ranches LLC owns and operates Sweetwater River Conservancy Greater Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Bank, the first approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offset impacts to sage grouse in the U.S. It is a private company under Sammons Enterprises, Inc, a diversified holding company with financial services, industrial equipment, real estate and infrastructure interests in its portfolios, according to Sammons’ webpage.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
WyoFile Via Wyoming News Exchange