Balance of Power
Wyoming leaders feared that by adding an extra layer of permitting to oil and gas development, listing would hamstring the industry, which provides more than half of state revenues. “It would grind our economy to a halt,” says Ryan Lance, Governor Freudenthal’s deputy chief of staff. At the same time conservationists harbored their own worries that in the resolutely red state of Wyoming, a wide-ranging listing would provoke a backlash against both the sage-grouse and the Endangered Species Act—just as the northern spotted owl had in the Northwest—ultimately frustrating conservation and the restoration of privately owned habitat.
During the previous decade Wyoming and other states had encouraged local efforts to preserve sagebrush steppe habitat, but these projects were small and largely uncoordinated. In order to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing, Freudenthal knew, the state would have to come up with a better way.
In 2007 that demanding task fell to the unromantically named Governor’s Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, chaired by Bob Budd of Wyoming’s Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. Budd had previously led the development of the state’s bighorn sheep conservation plan, which had identified key sheep habitat. He wondered if a similarly focused plan could work for the sage-grouse.
Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming was also looking for a coordinated strategy for saving species. As a seasoned conservationist, Rutledge knows the costs of small, scattered battles. “We needed to figure out a way to do this at a bigger scale,” he says. Rutledge consulted David Naugle, a University of Montana wildlife professor who studies the needs of breeding sage-grouse. Naugle and Kevin Doherty, then one of Naugle’s Ph.D. students and now a senior ecologist for Audubon Wyoming, began to pinpoint what they called “core areas” for the species’ survival. “What we asked first was, ‘Where are our biggest, most intact landscapes with the biggest populations?’ ” Naugle says. “That’s the central underpinning of the core-area concept.”
Poring over decades of data on sage-grouse breeding collected by state wildlife officials, Doherty analyzed sage-grouse habitat use in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and neighboring states—the species’ eastern range. Within that sprawling space, he found, some parts are far more important than others. Setting aside a carefully selected 25 percent of the range, he estimated, would save more than three-quarters of the habitat of the known breeding sage-grouse population; protecting 60 percent would conserve the entire breeding sage-grouse population’s habitat.
Audubon Wyoming presented its maps to the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team’s state and federal agency officials, oil and gas industry representatives, and ranchers; a wind energy representative joined the group in 2009, after the industry had gained momentum in the state. The state wildlife agency and industry groups had come up with maps of sage-grouse habitat needs roughly similar to Audubon’s, and the task force members—somewhat to their surprise—found themselves in broad agreement on the core-area strategy. “The group was able to say, ‘Holy cow, it’s pretty obvious where the birds are,’” says Budd.
Then they began setting boundaries. Excluding places already overwhelmed with oil and gas development—because even large sage-grouse populations in those areas have little chance of long-term survival—they settled on 14 million acres. The area encompassed a little more than 20 percent of the state but included breeding habitat for 80 percent of Wyoming’s sage-grouse population. Taking into consideration research showing that the birds avoid juniper trees and drilling rigs in the winter, and that their cousins the prairie-chickens likely steer clear of wind turbines, the task force recommended that all “surface disturbance” in core areas—gas wells, wind turbines, roads, pipelines, even overhead transmission lines—be limited to a maximum of five percent of each square mile.
In August 2008 Freudenthal directed state agencies to manage core areas in their jurisdiction to protect sage-grouse, and in January 2010 the Bureau of Land Management issued a memo recommending restrictions for core habitat on its lands. Two months later the Fish and Wildlife Service added the bird to the roster of “candidate species” for potential future listing. For the team, the challenge is clear. The agency will revisit its decision each year, and if the bird’s numbers decline, the FWS will raise the urgency of listing it as an endangered species. “The agency has said that this bird deserves protection,” says Rutledge. “We’ve said we can provide that. Now’s the time to show we can do it.”
Can this path rescue the sage-grouse and the hundreds of other species that depend on the sagebrush steppe? “It’s innovative, and it’s probably the West’s best bet for saving sage-grouse,” says Sophie Osborn, a biologist for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a longstanding state conservation group. “But there’s never a perfect strategy. There are always trade-offs.”
The Outdoor Council, among other conservation groups, is concerned that the restrictions are inadequate to prevent sage-grouse population declines. “We really need to have high levels of protection for these areas,” says Steve Holmer, senior policy adviser for the American Bird Conservancy, which supports listing the species. Holmer warns that ongoing energy development and grazing on these sites will continue to undermine the sage-grouse population.