CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The Interior Department's decision last week to place the greater sage grouse on its "candidate list" for Endangered Species Act protection sent a shock wave through the Interior West, where resource-strapped state governments now must try to preempt a final ESA listing by adopting even tougher conservation policies.
Nowhere is that pressure more acutely felt than here in Wyoming's capital, where leaders convened yesterday to pore over the Fish and Wildlife Service's listing decision and develop strategies to move the species toward recovery.
Until now, Wyoming -- which is home to half of the world's greater sage grouse -- has attempted to preserve the bird by steering energy projects, subdivisions and other forms of development away from its roughly 14 million acres of state-designated grouse "core areas," with limited success.
The "core area" policy has been particularly hard felt by the wind-power industry, which has invested heavily in planning, siting and constructing wind farms in Wyoming, often in close proximity to sage grouse breeding grounds, called "leks." The state's south-central region is considered by industry and government experts to have some of the best wind energy potential in the country.
But with FWS upping the ante last week, Wyoming officials say they have little choice but to tighten their grouse protection policies even more, a move that could force cattle off of longtime rangelands, prompt oil and gas drillers to abandon dozens of valid drilling leases, and drive potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in new energy investment away from the state.
"This is tough business, tough slogging, but we need to continue," said Ryan Lance, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), who has personally directed much of the state's grouse conservation strategy.
As part of that process, Freudenthal convened his Sage Grouse Implementation Team to carefully review the current "core area" boundaries and revise them if necessary to reflect the latest scientific studies and grouse population surveys. He also wants suggestions for improving the state's grouse protection measures by July 1.
The advisory group, comprised of government leaders, industry representatives and environmentalists, drew the original core area map that Freudenthal codified in August 2008. Under his executive order, Freudenthal also committed the state to a no-net-loss policy for grouse occupying the most sensitive habitat areas.
John Emmerich, the deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, presented updated population maps yesterday indicating that some of the original core areas were incorrectly drawn, in some cases mislabeling areas that are in fact not sage grouse habitat.
Emmerich said the boundaries were off in some places "because we didn't have the fine-scale data we have today." Still, he added, "I don't see any major changes to core areas."
In a letter to the team, Freudenthal predicted "there will be a need for some adjustment" to the state's core area boundaries. But, he warned, "I am not willing to endure a drawn-out game of boundary adjustments to satisfy political whims or the needs of a specific project, industry, or conservation agenda, but would ask that you let the data inform your decisions."
According to Lance, a number of prospective developers, and even some environmental groups, have pressed state regulators in recent months to gauge how committed the state is to its core area policy.
"They want to see if we're serious about this," he said, adding that the core areas "look great on a paper ... but people live in these core areas, work there, and they want permits. We want to make sure they're defensible."
Other states, too, will have to make similarly defensible decisions about sage grouse. In addition to Wyoming, greater sage grouse are found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Officials in some of those states are already taking steps for greater sage grouse conservation, in some cases borrowing directly from Wyoming's example.
But any actions Wyoming and neighbors take to protect sage grouse will occur against the backdrop of ongoing legal challenges to the "warranted but precluded" decision.
The Western Watersheds Project, which sued the Bush administration in 2006 over its decision not to list the bird, filed the first court challenge on Monday in federal district court in Idaho. The group's 20-page complaint charges that FWS's failure to immediately list the sage grouse as threatened or endangered is illegal given the abundance of scientific evidence supporting such a listing.
"This 'precluded' determination relegates the sage-grouse to the long list of ESA 'candidate' species -- a black hole from which few species ever emerge and under which they receive no ESA protection -- and represents yet another non-scientific, politicized, and arbitrary determination that prevents the sage-grouse from obtaining the ESA protection that it urgently needs," the complaint states.
Jon Marvel, WWP's executive director, said his group will seek an order from U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill forcing FWS to add the grouse to the Endangered Species List and setting a firm deadline to do so.
"It's pretty clear that it was a politically motivated decision," Marvel said. "In our judgment under Bush, and now under Obama, the [federal government] is abusing the law in order to avoid what is perceived as unpleasant political consequences if they carry out an endangered listing."
FWS officials declined to comment on the WWP legal challenge.
In last week's conference call with reporters, however, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other officials stressed that the decision against listing the grouse was based on months of research by a team of 38 federal, state and academic researchers.
Their analysis concluded "that the greater sage grouse population as a whole remains at a sufficient level with a broad enough distribution that the immediate threat of extinction is low," said Tom Strickland, Interior's assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.
Strickland also disputed claims that candidate species are allowed to languish for years without concerted efforts to improve their status. FWS's list of ESA candidate species currently stands at 249, but that number is extremely fluid, and the agency has committed to whittle the backlog down to 186 species by the end of the year.
"Based on the breadth of the population of the greater sage grouse and the actual numbers that are still surviving, we don't think there is an imminent threat to extinction," Strickland said. "But we are monitoring it very closely. We don't just forget to pay attention to species on the candidate list."
State-based conservation efforts are further complicated by the fact that most Western states have only sketchy estimates of how many birds live within their borders, or where the birds are located.
One of the centerpieces of the new federal program announced last week is the development of detailed maps of critical sage grouse habitat across the bird's 11-state historic range, from the Dakotas to Nevada.
BLM last month hired Audubon Wyoming to gather state surveys on male sage grouse occupying breeding areas and create a series of maps showing critical sage grouse areas in all 11 states.
Brian Rutledge, Audubon Wyoming's executive director, said work will begin this month, and the maps should be completed by April. "Then it's up to the states to determine how to manage those areas," he said.
The hope, federal regulators say, is that the states will use the new habitat maps to develop policies like Wyoming's that discourage all forms of development within the core area boundaries.
Strickland said identifying and preserving such areas is essential to keeping the sage grouse off the Endangered Species List, but such activities should not preclude other priorities such as oil and gas drilling and the construction of renewable energy plants.
"We think there's plenty of room in the West to be able to have compatible energy development, both conventional and renewable, and still protect the sage grouse," he said.
While most of North America's greater sage grouse live in Wyoming, there are sizeable pockets of birds in other states, especially Montana and Idaho, where officials also have taken unprecedented steps to protect the bird.
Those efforts are expected to continue, and possibly gain momentum, now that the grouse has moved a step closer to federal protection.
In Idaho, for example, FWS last month finalized the nation's first Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for sage grouse across 645,000 acres of private land in the western part of the state. The program, aimed at ranchers and landowners, provides assurances that in exchange for protecting the region's roughly 600 sage grouse and their habitat, FWS will not impose new restrictions on CCAA participants should the grouse eventually be listed as threatened or endangered.
"We consider it a win-win for everyone if done correctly," said Kendra Womack, branch chief for conservation partnerships in FWS's Boise field office. She noted similar conservation agreements could be implemented elsewhere, both in Idaho and neighboring states like Montana.
Montana's grouse conservation strategy has more closely followed Wyoming's. Last year, for example, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks developed a "core area" strategy for grouse that, while less restrictive than Wyoming's, is still used to steer development away from the most sensitive habitat areas.
Federal officials said state agencies that take aggressive steps to keep development away from sage grouse core areas would have the full support of their federal counterparts.
"We know that without good planning that energy activities can impact the sage grouse," said Strickland, the FWS assistant secretary. "So, the emphasis here is on smart from the start. If we have the best science, the best information, if we share it between state and federal agencies and private landowners, we can work proactively to avoid impacts on the front end."
In addition, the state is supporting research at the University of Montana aimed at reducing the impacts of livestock grazing on grouse.
Under that effort, university researchers have struck agreements with ranchers near Billings to keep cattle off parcels of range known to be occupied by grouse. Beginning this year, researchers will mark and closely monitor the resident grouse to determine whether the absence of livestock improves survival rates for grouse chicks.
David Naugle, an ecologist with the university's wildlife biology program who is leading the research effort, said the findings become even more important in light of the grouse's candidate status. "The threat of listing is going to continue until we actually put conservation on the ground," he said. "The only thing that's going to make it go away is when we prove we can sustain large populations of sage grouse."
Energy development implications
The grouse issue has also placed the Interior Department in an untenable position of trying to conserve an iconic Western species in the midst of the nation's most aggressive renewable energy push in 30 years. Much of the Obama administration's energy vision involves siting large-scale wind farms and associated transmission lines on the very public lands that are essential grouse habitat.
Salazar said during last week's announcement that the department has "twin goals" of conserving sage grouse while also ensuring "that we are able to move forward with the continued use and development of our public lands, and that includes conventional energy and renewable energy."
Meanwhile, Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey issued an "instructional memorandum" to regional offices instructing staff to "withhold from sale or defer the sale of parcels" for energy development that are within sage grouse priority habitat. The memo also directs regional offices to reroute proposed transmission lines and to screen renewable energy applications for potential encroachment on grouse habitat.
Roughly 60 percent of the sage grouse's estimated 160-million-acre range is overseen by BLM, with the remaining habitat being split between other government entities and private landowners.
"We know that maintaining and restoring sagebrush landscapes on BLM-managed public lands is our primary means of conserving sage grouse," Abbey told reporters during last week's press conference.
For projects on BLM lands with anticipated impacts, Abbey said permit reviewers should alert prospective developers "as early as possible that the application may be denied or that terms and conditions may be imposed on the right-of-way grant to protect priority habitat," according to the memo.
Abbey also said BLM would review pending oil and natural gas leases "to determine what are the likely consequences of moving forward and approving those applications."
Such statements did not sit well with energy firms, however, who fear the grouse's listing as a candidate species may lead to a tightening of the regulatory noose around many energy projects and lead to a substantial shrinking of public lands available for energy development.
Paul Ulrich, who handles government and regulatory affairs for Denver-based EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., noted that industry has many dozens of drilling leases inside Wyoming's core sage grouse areas that "to date, we have stayed away from. It's a massive amount. We have left a lot on the table."
Rene Braud, director of permitting and environmental affairs for Horizon Wind Energy LLC, of Houston, which suspended plans for a major wind farm in Wyoming last year, said her company is willing to play by the rules so long as regulators are clear about what areas are off-limits.
"I'm all for protecting the bird," said Braud, who attended yesterday's task force meeting. "We just want to know what these core areas mean now. When they start talking about stronger language for stronger enforcement, we say 'yeah,' as long as it does not just single out wind power."
Pressing forward in Wyo.
Wyoming and federal officials acknowledge there will be conflicts going forward.
FWS, in its listing decision, noted that the core area strategy "has the potential to provide significant regulatory protection for the sage grouse from adverse affects associated with wind development and other developments."
But it is also "an example of something that's working," Pat Deibert, FWS's lead biologist for sage grouse, told the state implementation team in Cheyenne.
Among the 249 candidate species, FWS gave the greater sage grouse a relatively low "level 8" priority ranking. Candidate species with a level 1 ranking are the most likely to be listed under ESA, while those with a rating of 12, the lowest possible, are the least likely to be listed, said Brian Kelly, field supervisor for FWS's Wyoming Ecological Services Office.
But Kelly warned that the priority rankings are reviewed every year, and that a candidate species' ranking can change quickly if its population or habitat takes a hit in a given year. Allowing wind farms, electric transmission lines and other development in grouse core areas could quickly bump the bird's priority ranking closer to an endangered listing, he said.
"We need some assurances," Kelly said. "We can't afford to develop in core areas and sit back and see what happens."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.