Federal judge’s decision flies in the face of sage grouse conservation and cooperation
The state of Wyoming, in just the past 12 years, has spent over $200 million on habitat conservation, research, and other work to protect the sage grouse.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon is the third governor to work with three presidents through the executive orders and conservation planning that have essentially been tossed out by Chief Judge Brian Morris’ decision last week to toss out lease sales on account of the 2015 sage grouse plans. Citing the already uncertain times in terms of revenue, Gov. Gordon said Morris’ decision spells major economic implications while accomplishing nothing toward conservation of sage grouse and undermining the voluntary and cooperative work done to protect it.
Bob Budd, the executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, has been involved in conservation efforts since 1999. Wyoming Game and Fish adopted a statewide conservation plan that included local working groups in 2001. In 2007, then Gov. Dave Freudenthal, in an effort to be more impactful, created the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, which is chaired by Budd. He said the team brought to the table federal and state agencies, landowners, oil and gas companies, mining companies, local government representatives, environmental interests and conservation groups, and developed a plan of restrictions for development and usage.
“All of that was science-based, we had the scientists in the room,” Budd said. “Obviously, not everything is as restrictive as some would like, but it’s certainly more restrictive than anything else and it applies on all lands — state lands, private lands, federal lands — the rules are the same everywhere.”
Budd said there are restrictions on surface disturbance, timing, and other factors based on the sage grouse. After 13 years in place, he said industry has been exemplary in following the plan to minimize impact and avoid conflict.
The leases, he said, provide the opportunity to extract the designated mineral but only through adhering to the restrictions and that is the part of Chief Judge Morris’ decision that he said is frustrating.
“Just because you have a lease doesn’t mean you can go do what you want,” he said. “To strike down the leases flies in the face of the way we’ve been managing for a number of years. The decision to vacate the leases is an insult to all the work that has been done by everybody, and that includes the environmental groups working with the oil industry and the mining industry working with sportsmen and ranchers working with all of the above. This has been a collective effort by the people of Wyoming who have stood up and rallied behind sage grouse conservation and frankly, sage grouse ecosystem conservation.”
Sage grouse numbers ebb and flow and while Budd said the numbers are low now, they are within the expected range and with a good year for chicks and hens, next year could see much higher numbers.
Moving forward with this judgment, Budd said much of it comes down to dotting Is and crossing Ts with the possibility of an additional National Environmental Policy Act analysis once the current one is concluded. Budd said it’s a time waste but, given the current oil and gas markets, the timing may have been fortuitous.
“We’ll get through it,” he said. “It’s just frustrating.”
Gov. Gordon called the decision impractical and impulsive and said it ultimately prevents Wyoming from effectively managing the sage grouse and a vital part of the state’s economy. He said he is considering legal options.
Chief Judge Morris, a native of Butte, Mont., is a Stanford-educated attorney. Among his most notable rulings is the 2018 decision that stopped the construction of the Keystone Pipeline until further environmental analysis could be completed. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 768-0024.
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