CASPER – Gov. Dave Freudenthal on Wednesday issued an executive order revising Wyoming’s sage grouse Core Population Area policy, first implemented by executive order in 2008 to help avoid a listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The changes resulted in a net increase of total core areas protected of an estimated 400,000 acres, Freudenthal said.
“There was acreage deleted and there was acreage added. I think that it is a net plus in terms of the acreage that is now protected in the core area,” Freudenthal said Wednesday during a media conference.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Interior determined that the sage grouse qualified for protection under the Endangered Species Act – including its range in Wyoming – but precluded listing the bird because of higher-priority listing commitments.
Originally issued in fall 2008, Freudenthal’s core areas plan represented a fundamental change in protecting sage grouse compared to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s “adaptive management” approach. The BLM approach had been to approve activities first, promising to modify stipulations after impacts to wildlife species were measured.
Wyoming’s core areas policy requires that developers of new activities must first demonstrate how sage grouse populations will not be diminished.
Wyoming’s core areas represent habitats where special restrictions apply to several activities, including drilling, agriculture and recreation – to the extent the state has regulatory authority. While the policy does not expand the state’s current authority over any land-use activities, it has been recognized by federal regulators as a key strategy in protecting sage grouse.
Several federal agencies, particularly the BLM, are expected to align their own conservation strategies with the core areas plan in Wyoming.
“But you’ve got to understand I think it’s clearly going to be more difficult to do anything in the core area than outside the core area. I mean, I don’t think we should pull any punches about that, because the priority of the core area’s going to be to protect the bird,” Freudenthal said.
The new executive order sets out to address three issues not fully developed in the 2008 policy because of a lack of information available at the time. Armed with more habitat information and more input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the new order refines mapping of core areas, development outside core areas and how to allow for greater connectivity among habitats.
Connectivity among habitats is important to ensure genetic mixing of the sage grouse population.
While the policy has the potential to significantly reduce new activities within core sage grouse habitat, the core areas policy is justification for being more lenient when it comes to permitting activities outside core areas, Freudenthal said.
“What this allows us to do is to do pretty broad development outside of the core areas, even if there are sage grouse present,” Freudenthal said.
That’s something the oil and gas industry is counting on.
“That will be the key: if state and federal agencies take that to heart,” said Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
Sorenson said the impacts of the core areas policy on the oil and gas industry haven’t really had time to play out. She said that because the core area restrictions will diminish oil and gas activities across much of Wyoming’s landscape, the industry really does need more access to areas outside the core areas.
“That’s not to go in there and take out the population of the grouse,” Sorenson said. “But if we’re going to be more restrictive in these high-value areas, then we need to have a little bit more flexibility outside.”
University of Montana professor Dave Naugle has authored several peer-reviewed studies on sage grouse in the region in recent years, and his work has been criticized vigorously by the oil and gas industry for suggesting the perilous conditions of some sage grouse populations.
Naugle said that while the success of Wyoming’s core areas policy depends greatly on how it’s implemented, the strategy is a good one.
“The governor’s executive order represents a proactive approach for maintaining large and intact sage grouse populations rather than providing palliative care to small and declining ones,” Naugle said in an e-mail.
In fact, Naugle said he considers the policy a standard for other Western states to emulate.
“Sage grouse will still pay a price for leniency for more activities outside core areas, but that cost will be much less than if those same activities had taken place inside cores,” Naugle said.
Donna Wichers of Uranium One served on the governor’s sage grouse core areas implementation team. She said at least one existing drilling operation for a potential in-situ leach uranium mine in the Great Divide Basin was carved out of a core area. However, many new uranium mining projects remain within the core areas.
“There are some ways these properties can still be developed, but the process will be very strict,” Wichers said.
While exceptions will be considered under the policy for virtually all types of activities, there are no exceptions to the restriction of new wind energy development.
Freudenthal noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on two occasions, indicated that wind energy development is “incompatible” with core area protection. However, that will not prevent the state from revisiting the issue, particularly once new information is available from a coordinated effort to measure wind energy’s impact on sage grouse outside the core areas.
Cheryl Riley is executive director of the Wyoming Power Producers Coalition, a group of wind energy developers. She said the wind industry fully intends to craft strategies for developing wind energy in ways that do not diminish sage grouse populations.
“We support Wyoming’s participation in the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative’s efforts to coordinate the research that is needed to gauge the true effects of wind development on greater sage grouse,” Riley said.
The sage grouse core areas strategy was revisited using new data developed from a $500,000 study funded by the Wyoming Legislature, and was developed by an implementation team that included various stakeholders.
Freudenthal, who will leave office in January after serving two terms as governor, wants the spirit of the policy to remain intact for some time.
However, he said that depending on the wishes of Wyoming’s next governor, “The plan is every year to go through reassessment.”
“If you’ve got a big data change, or if in the process of either private activity or public activity we discover that the facts upon which we based the map are not true, then we need to change the map.”
Capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer contributed to this story.
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