May 07–CHEYENNE — It’s possible that many southeast Wyoming residents have never seen a sage grouse up close.
The vast majority of Laramie County is one of the few parts of the state that is not part of the small, chicken-like bird’s habitat area.
But despite this fact, experts say the fate of the entire state’s economy, as well as its future, are closely tied to the sage grouse.
That is because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide by September whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
A decision to add the bird to the list could stop or delay oil, gas, coal and wind energy projects across much of the state, said Temple Stoellinger.
She is co-director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources in the Rockies at the University of Wyoming.
Stoellinger said some energy projects still would be allowed in the sage grouse’s habitat areas, which cover millions of acres. But they would face high scrutiny and be forced to clear added regulatory hurdles.
“It is a time-consuming and lengthy process,” she said. “One of the concerns right now is that there are so few folks with the Fish and Wildlife Service to process all those permits that there would be a glut of reviews to go through.”
Anne Alexander is an economist, also at UW, who co-authored a report last year in the university’s Wyoming Law Review.
It projected that 1,600 oil and gas jobs and 4,000 indirect jobs would be lost in the sage grouse’s core habit areas in the state if there is an endangered species listing.
And although the report says the economic impact would be felt the most in the habitat areas, it goes on to say the impact would reach across Wyoming with the state losing nearly $30 million in severance tax revenues and $3.6 million state sales and use taxes each year.
“It would have a pretty significant impact on the whole state,” Alexander said. “The Endangered Species Act is kind of a blunt instrument instead of (the state’s sage grouse protection efforts), which is more like using a finely tuned instrument.”
This potential economic damage is one of the reasons that Gov. Matt Mead and former Gov. Dave Freudenthal have made protecting the sage grouse a key focus of both of their administrations.
The state’s efforts include enacting the Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection Policy, which aims to protect key breading-ground areas.
Mead also announced a deal in March that sets up the nation’s first conservation bank in central Wyoming for the sage grouse. This lets conservation credits be used to offset energy developments in one area by conserving land in another.
Brian Rutledge, vice president of Audubon Rockies, said these have been productive steps that could prevent the listing.
But the problem, he said, is that sage grouse have habitats in 10 other states that haven’t been as proactive as Wyoming. And Rutledge said the endangered species ruling would apply to everyone or no one.
“The good news is no one has as many grouse as (Wyoming) does, and no one makes as much of a difference overall than Wyoming does because 37 percent of the sage grouse on the planet are in Wyoming,” he said.
“So the onus certainly was on us. But we were sharp, we were out there, we got a plan that the Fish and Wildlife Service accepted and we’ve been working ever since on making our plan better.”
Still, the other 10 states are working on their plans, and they hope their combined efforts will keep the bird off the list this fall.
Also, a congressional effort is underway to try to prevent the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list. But many sage grouse supporters in Wyoming are not pleased about the effort.
All three members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation are co-sponsors on bill that would block the federal government from listing the sage grouse as an endangered species for six to 10 years.
“States like Wyoming are already leading the way when it comes to protecting species on the ground — including the sage grouse,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in a statement. “The last thing states need are more Ã‚’one size fits all’ regulations from Washington that won’t help species and will devastate local economies.”
But Rutledge said passing this bill actually could increase the likelihood that the sage grouse one day will be added to the endangered species list.
That is because he said he fears that the 11 states will back off their efforts to save the sage grouse and the declines in their numbers will pick up again.
“Just human nature tells me if we have a 10-year delay, in nine years and six months we’ll start to work on this again,” he said. “By then, we’ll have lost more ground than we have gained.”
The U.S. Game and Fish Service is expected to make a decision on whether to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in September.