By Mara Abbott, Buffalo Bulletin Via Wyoming News Exchange

 

BUFFALO — In 2017, Montana wildfires spread into Wyoming.

Ultimately, it torched more than 15,000 acres of sagebrush steppe, cutting a thick slice through the North Buffalo Connectivity Area, a corridor of critical greater sage-grouse habitat.

It’s a region that Dan Thiele, Sheridan Region wildlife management coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says is critical for healthy local sage-grouse, because it provides genetic connectivity to high-density grouse populations in Montana.

“You could liken it to livestock operations, where ranchers bring in different bulls and diversify the genetics of their herd on a regular basis,” Thiele said. “There’s got to be habitat to support animals between those populations.”

Thiele is also the Game and Fish representative to the Northeast Local Working Group, a coalition of wildlife biologists, land and wildlife management agency representatives and local stakeholders tasked with monitoring and helping manage the region’s grouse population and its habitat. The group spent a year and a half outlining plans to mitigate the impacts of the damaged habitat. They scheduled three public meetings for September for comment on their proposed actions, but when the governor’s 2019 Sage-Grouse Executive Order was released Aug. 21, a new procedural appendix clipped the group’s wings.

Now, a newly appointed “technical team” will offer input into the top-level grouse management decisions that will impact habitat, energy production, land use and the birds themselves in Johnson County and across the Powder River Basin.

The executive order clarified roles: A local working group is responsible for identifying whether a trigger has tripped (“Trigger” is sage-grouse-world speak for a notable decline in population or habitat conditions.) Then, the Statewide Adaptive Management Working Group (populated by representatives from state and federal land and wildlife management organizations) will assemble a technical team of local specialists to craft response strategy recommendations for the statewide Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, commonly known as SGIT (which makes sage-grouse-related regulatory recommendations to the governor.)

There’s a reason this explanation demanded a four-page appendix plus a flow chart.

At a Sept. 5 meeting in Casper, the SGIT discussed the executive order’s immediate implications for the NELWG’s work.

“My gut tells me it’s time to pause,” said SGIT Chairman Bob Budd. “If they are at that point, they should probably say, ‘Hey, we need to activate that state group and look at a technical team.’”

The Wyoming Game and Fish sage-grouse coordinator, Leslie Schrieber, said she told Thiele the news.

“I pointed out what the executive order said versus what was happening,” Schrieber said.

The afternoon of that SGIT meeting, Thiele abruptly canceled the Northeast Local Working Group’s public meetings. At the time, Thiele said he hoped they would be rescheduled within the next few months, but the group hasn’t met since.

Sage-grouse conservation makes for odd bedfellows. The species is persistently dogged by the specter of an Endangered Species Act listing and more than a third of all remaining greater sage-grouse population is located in Wyoming.

A listing would affect everything. Habitat protections could shut down rigs, still pumpjacks and impact state and federal land leases across large swaths of the state. It would constrain ranchers and other landowners, limiting options and potentially lowering land values.

For those concerned about the birds themselves, a listing would mean that Wyoming’s broad-based attempt at preservation had failed, signaling a likely irreparable shift in the state’s sagebrush ecosystem as its keystone species continues to disappear.

Core Area Strategy designates critical habitat areas throughout the state, mandating special protections in the form of strict development and noise restrictions.

The 2017 fires in the North Buffalo Connectivity virtually severed the habitat intended to link Wyoming and Montana grouse populations.

The Northeast Local Working Group proposals started with short-term protective actions, such as cheatgrass treatments, juniper removal and prioritized wildfire attack.

Yet Bureau of Land Management data showed that the interval between fires in the region has shrunk to a concerningly short 10 to 15 years. Sage-grouse rely on sagebrush for food, shelter and nesting cover, and slow-growing sagebrush take as much as 30 years to reach full size.

“(Sage-grouse) are totally dependent on sagebrush in the wintertime,” Thiele said. “Re-establishing sagebrush is not a short-term project.”

Yet throughout 2018, as the Northeast Local Working Group worked through its damage mitigation strategy, newly published research indicated that, even restored, the current connectivity maps are inadequate.

The protected land lies in two north-south columns, one running through an area directly east of Buffalo and the other tracking a parallel path near Gillette.

The new studies showed that the Buffalo column facilitates gene flow south into the rest of Wyoming, while the Gillette column flows up to the majority of Montana’s population.

The problem is that the two pillars have no protected east-west connection between them, like the teeth of an old zipper that can no longer quite mesh.

That creates a concerning potential for isolated populations, Thiele said, if habitat conditions prevent grouse from jumping the gap. As a result, the proposals included an expansion of the Northeast Connectivity Areas. More connectivity reduces the impact of fires on a percentage-of-habitat basis and strategically located, could also bridge the newly identified east-west genetic gap.

Changes to core and connectivity areas, however, are a tough sell. The August 2019 executive order dictates that absent “compelling information,” those areas “shall not be altered for a minimum of 5 years from the date of this executive order.” “There’s no one thing,” Budd told the Bulletin as to what might constitute “compelling.” “It’s a body of information and a body of data that can be brought forward.”

According to Thiele, the 2018 research two academic studies published in Ecology in Evolution and Evolutionary Applications, respectively significantly impacted his recommendations for sage-grouse management in northeast Wyoming.

“Without a doubt,” Thiele said. “If we’re looking at maintaining connectivity, addressing the habitat loss is one thing, but it’s not enough. Just replacing or restoring the compromised habitat will not facilitate genetic connectivity to the Montana population.”

The northeast group’s proposals generated opposition from several quarters. Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and an industry  representative to the SGIT, wrote a letter to the NELWG chairman, Tracy Jones, on Sept. 11, arguing that the group’s fire response should be kept separate from any connectivity expansions.

“Although the fundamental premise of the EO is to protect (sage-grouse) and prevent a listing of the bird, an equally important element is to provide land users with certainty regarding the required framework under which development may occur and areas where conservation efforts will be focused,” she wrote.

At the Sept. 5 SGIT meeting, John Espy, of Carbon County, the SGIT county commissioner representative, said commissioners in the northeast region were concerned.

“There’s a lot of angst up there,” Espy said. “It’s fear of the unknown and all the different things being thrown on the table. I think it’s time we kick it up (to a technical team).”

“All of a sudden, people are calling and going, ‘What the hell are you doing?” Budd later told the Bulletin. “They identified their own problem. Now, they’ve solved it, or they’re going out and telling people they solved it, but they didn’t ask anybody if it was okay.”

“We didn’t come up with that,” said Ryan Fieldgrove, a landowner representative on the Northeast Local Working Group.

According to Fieldgrove, the expansion was far from a done deal.

“We didn’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s time to expand the core area,’” he explained. “It was a possibility.”

Fieldgrove said that while he personally didn’t support the expansion, he was on board with the public meetings and his group’s process.

“I guess we were premature, but it wasn’t because of ill intentions,” Fieldgrove said. “We thought we were supposed to be doing that. The executive order changed some of the rules.”

Members of the Northeast Local Working Group remain unsure of the technical team’s role and purpose.

“Some of us question it,” Fieldgrove said. “I, for one, do. The one thing I’m really confused about and want to understand is, what’s their goal? What are they supposed to do? I feel like it’s a bit redundant. But if it’s truly technical…Yeah, those people should have specialized technical interests.”

Yet according to Budd, despite the team’s name, that’s not necessarily a requirement.

“Just because it says ‘technical team’ doesn’t mean they have to be a technician,” Budd said at a Dec. 5 SGIT meeting in Casper.

Laid side by side, the local working group and the technical team contain a remarkably similar representation of affiliations and skills.

“That was never the intent of the technical team,” Budd said. “The intent of a technical team is a gut check on the local working group. The purpose is to get another look at it through a different lens.”

Though he remained unsure of its necessity, once they were named, Fieldgrove did speak highly of the technical team members.

“I put a lot of value in them as level-headed, open-minded and diligent,” he said.

The technical team has not yet met, but Budd told the SGIT he expects to hear recommendations by late spring.

“When it comes back to the SGIT, you might have two reports that are identical,” Budd said. “I find that unlikely. The pencil’s pointed at the same end, but it’s all about how they think you get there.”