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The sage grouse stand-off continues in the West

A standoff in the American west is occurring between two iconic symbols - ranchers and the Greater sage grouse. The sage grouse is a threatened species and ranchers and other resource users are struggling to balance changing conservation science with economic feasibility.

This stand-off is repeated history, as states made great strides to protect the bird without federal oversight in 2015. Now once again, some states are restricting private property rights to discourage federal overreach.

The sage grouse is the largest grouse in North America, a chicken-like bird. The remarkable mating ritual is its most known characteristic, but with low intelligence and survival traits the bird struggles to adapt to changing climates. The unique bird finds its protection and food sources in the sage brush habitat, spread across public and private lands in 11 western states and 2 Canadian provinces. The bird’s extreme dislike for habitat disruption is costly. Private landowners, resource developers, and taxpayers designate millions of dollars annually to improve conditions for the sage grouse, but with only marginal success.

Eight years ago, Wyoming led out on sage grouse conservation but those previous efforts seem to have generated little goodwill. In 2015, Wyoming’s state mandated sage grouse Intervention Team designated core habitat across public and private lands. Many ranchers and other resource holders awoke to find that their lands were core habitat and certain future uses were no longer possibilities or were surrounded with excessive red tape. Despite stepping on many private landowners rights, the sage grouse population has continued to decline. In 2020, Wyoming created mitigation credits for sage grouse conservation, hoping to offset the challenges for landowners.

This year, the federal government has once again proposed increasing oversight and conservation efforts for the Greater sage grouse. Increased federal oversight through agency management and/or listing as an Endangered Species are both unfavored options. States argue that localized management is more successful for population growth and balancing local priorities, versus generic federal control.

To hopefully prevent federal oversight of the Greater sage grouse, Wyoming is currently designating more core areas and restricting more private property rights to prevent onerous federal oversight. Ranchers and other resource users are discouraged and frustrated, as their previous efforts and sacrifices go unappreciated, and they are still blamed for the bird’s continued decreasing population. The state has listened to the frustrations, and recently extended the comment period on the current proposal for core habitat.

The comment period on the proposed core area map is extended to July 28th. Governor Mark Gordon said, “While I understand their agency's desire to move forward efficiently, folks affected by the potential addition of sage-grouse core areas need additional time and the opportunity to discuss the state's process. These are not insignificant matters. I know – I ranch in a sage-grouse core area."

But Wyoming’s method of widespread designations of Core Areas across public and private lands is not the only path. Other states, like Idaho, work collaboratively with landowners, encouraging voluntary projects to promote habitat, while carefully applying a tiered designation approach. Idaho weighs critical habitat against the results to grouse populations and the cost to livelihoods. Both plans were approved, so maybe Wyoming might want to take a more particular stance, and carefully designate habitat while still respecting property rights.

Or look at Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program that is gaining momentum as landowners and counties work with state agencies to foster good conservation practices, without onerous regulations that cause animosity and are difficult to implement.

The concern of increased federal oversight is valid, but unduly restricting private property rights is self-sabotage. Wyoming needs to collaborate with landowners, beyond their compensatory attempt through mitigation credits, and selectively designate land, leaving plenty of room for a successful and voluntary partnership between landowners and conservation efforts. Actions like this will end the stand-off between sage grouse and ranchers, as both sides are able to appreciate the efforts being taken on their behalf.

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