EDITORIAL: Zinke sage grouse report flawed


Further review of state plan needed

Imagine working on a team tasked with what some said was impossible — but, despite the odds, the team achieves that goal after 10 long years. 

Then, imagine watching as someone new comes in, and, after studying the situation for a mere two months, decides to drastically change the plan worked out by the team. 

That’s the position Wyoming and four other Western states — Montana, Utah, Nevada and Colorado — find themselves in with the release of an Aug. 7 report about sage grouse conservation from a team assigned by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. 

The five states coordinated a 10-year process to study and develop a sage grouse conservation plan, which focuses on sage grouse habitat preservation. The process involved several state and federal agencies as well as representatives of agriculture, industry and recreation.

Brian Rutledge, director of the Rocky Mountain Region Audubon Society, told the Casper Star Tribune in June he has never seen the kind of collaborative effort put forth during the state-managed information-gathering and planning process about sage grouse management and conservation. 

It also prevented what was a likely listing of the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened — a major accomplishment. 

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said the Aug. 7 federal report, which came out two months after Zinke called for a review of the existing plan, made some improvements. But he said he is concerned about the report’s recommendation to switch from a habitat-based effort to protect the sage grouse to one based on the birds’ population. 

In an interview with Wyoming Public Radio, Mead elaborated: “They have a bad fire here or severe spring weather, or a disease comes and wipes out 50 percent of population; they don’t meet their population objectives ... are we all going to be listed?” Mead said. 

That concern is shared by Rutledge, who said a population-based strategy is “naive.” He said Zinke’s comments about habitat and captive breeding “are the opinions of someone who hasn’t spent significant time studying the groups or its challenges.”

Experts say it is difficult to get reliable and consistent population counts on sage grouse, and captive breeding of sage grouse has not been successful yet.

The Department of Interior report, described as industry-friendly, was praised by representatives of the ranching and energy industries.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, cited the report’s recommendation to back away from keeping rangeland grasses and shrubs at a minimum height, which, according to an Associated Press report, ranchers had complained was arbitrary. 

From an industry viewpoint, Wyoming arguably stands to gain the most with the recommendations in the federal report, since the state depends so heavily on revenue from the energy sector.

But the state also has the most to lose. Wyoming is home to 37 percent of the sage grouse population in the United States — the largest segment of any state. In addition, nearly 80 percent of Wyoming is considered historical range for the sage grouse. If the sage grouse were listed as threatened or endangered, that would have a much greater impact on agriculture and industry than the current sage grouse habitat management plan does, Mead said.

Mead told Wyoming Public Radio that the states deserve some deference for the 10 years of work they put into the current sage grouse plan.

We agree. In deciding to scrap the existing plan, it’s possible that Zinke will be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We urge him and the Department of the Interior to take more time to review the existing sage grouse management plan more closely and to come up with the best of both.

If they get it wrong, Wyoming — including its agriculture and industry — will pay the highest price.