As Wyoming’s greater sage grouse team met to revise the state’s conservation plan today, an expert cautioned of a “dark cloud” that could set population numbers back to 24-year lows.
The warning from the state’s recently retired grouse leader came as Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team met for an hour and a half with Gov. Mark Gordon to receive his draft executive order protecting the imperiled bird. “This reworking will not be a major overhaul,” Gordon wrote in a cover letter to SGIT members who expect to finalize the order for his approval in 60 days. (See the draft order and letter below.)
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But former Game and Fish Department sage grouse leader Tom Christiansen cast a shadow over the meeting with a preliminary summary from the spring sage grouse breeding ground surveys. The annual census involves hundreds of observers across the state counting strutting male grouse at leks.
“There is possibly a bit of a dark cloud on the horizon in terms of grouse numbers,” Christiansen told the group in Cheyenne. This year’s average lek size numbers could come in below a mid-1990s nadir, “outside historic range” and below the state’s plan, he warned.
The assessment comes “from what I’m seeing and hearing in the field and the trend in the last couple of years,” Christiansen told the group. He’s heard of similar woes in other states, he wrote WyoFile, though all are second-hand accounts. Final numbers are yet to be tallied.
Although retired, Christiansen maintains connections with the network of Wyoming counters, many of whom are volunteers working with various state and federal agency personnel. Collectively, they survey as many as 1,600 leks annually, an operation that outstrips any other states’ efforts.
Are grouse headed to another low?
In 1996, a low point, the average lek in Wyoming held 13.1 males, according to a compilation through 2015 by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Christiansen said 1995 was the nadir.
Those mid-1990s lek counts were a wake-up call, Christiansen said, and started serious talks about sage grouse conservation. In 2007, Gov. Dave Freudenthal convened a summit and established the sage grouse team that helped develop the state’s first executive order protecting grouse. That original order was signed in 2008.
Today some media reports paint a rosy picture of grouse numbers. “This isn’t the case,” Christiansen said.
He also cautioned about reading too much into short-range trends. Nevertheless, the situation is serious when you’re talking about numbers “outside that range of variability,” he said.
This spring’s broods could provide relief and change the outlook in the next few weeks, depending on rearing conditions, Christiansen said. “We’re set up for a good hatch,” he told a full room of perhaps 50 persons at Game and Fish headquarters.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of interest statewide what the Wyoming population is doing if we drop below that ’95 level,” he said.
Several members of the sage grouse team suggested that Gordon’s revised order contain a direction to not only maintain but increase grouse populations. Such a goal could address the potential problem Christiansen raised, they said.
“My dream is we look for lift … find a way to increase the population … increase carrying capacity,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative for the National Audubon Society.
Sen. Larry Hicks, a natural resource manager with the Little Snake River Conservation District, agreed such an effort is possible. “We could do that [in my area,] improve nutrition and survival of chicks,” he said.
Gordon wants order to be his own
Gordon’s executive order would replace the standing order last revised by Gov. Matt Mead. “It’s just important I have ownership of this,” he told the group.
At the same time, he recognized the work of the sage grouse team and the respect Wyoming’s core-area management strategy has garnered across the West. He approaches the sage grouse work the way he kayaks rivers, he said, entering the stream without interrupting the flow or making it change radically.
His draft order runs six pages and would have nine appendixes, according to documents he submitted to the group and which the team immediately made public. Underpinning the entire grouse conservation effort is the understanding that a listing under the Endangered Species Act could have draconian economic consequences for a state that derives much of its revenue from use and development of the so-called sagebrush sea.
“I appreciate the concern and understand both the commitment and the precariousness of all that is at stake to protect the greater sage-grouse in Wyoming,” his cover letter reads. “I believe all responsible engaged parties recognize the sensitivity of ensuring Wyoming’s established approach continues to be effective.”
The draft order would “prioritize the maintenance and enhancement of Greater sage-grouse habitats and populations inside the Core Population Areas, connectivity areas, and winter concentration areas,” it reads. A number of the 78 comment letters proposing changes to the executive order questioned whether Wyoming would continue to enforce that policy in the face of the federal government offering oil and gas leases in Wyoming’s core areas.
Despite recent lease sales in core areas, grouse-team chairman Bob Budd said federal agencies have assured Wyoming they will back its core-area strategy.
“I would say yes,” he said in response to a question, “we do have those assurances.”
Valid existing rights
The governor’s order would recognize and respect valid existing rights and continue existing land uses, particularly agriculture on private lands.
Development impacts would be minimized by prioritizing “avoidance, minimization, and where appropriate, compensatory mitigation,” the order reads. Audubon’s Rutledge called avoidance of impacts “our greatest protection possible.”
The Legislature is working on mitigation laws and legislative changes to the existing compensatory mitigation framework. The result will be accommodated in an executive order appendix, Gordon’s cover letter read.
The draft order calls for continued research on winter concentration areas. It seeks no changes for seven years in core-area, connectivity and winter-concentration-area maps, “absent substantial and compelling information.”
In addition to Christiansen’s population warning, Rutledge said Nevada could be in trouble after recent wildfires burned five million acres. If the greater sage grouse is listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered in that state, there could be cascading consequences for Wyoming, which holds the largest portion of grouse in the world — about 37 percent.
“I’m one of the Chicken Littles who does worry about what happens in the other states,” Rutledge told the sage grouse team.
While Gordon said he was happy to work with other states, he said he wanted the executive order to focus on Wyoming.
“I’m cautious about engaging with other states,” he said. “If we start saying ‘in Nevada they they do this, in Colorado they do that,’ we run the risk of losing our target.”
The Trump administration, at the Department of Interior secretarial level, “supports what we’re doing,” Gordon told the group. Wyoming’s strategy should be “durable over different political climates, different administrations.”