Balancing energy and sage-grouse - Wyoming does it right

Wyoming is one of our nation’s leaders in energy production. And Wyoming is also one of our nation’s most coveted destinations to hunt and fish. That is why states throughout the American West, which enjoy many similar wildlife and energy resources as Wyoming, must pursue the approach that Wyoming has developed to conserve the greater sage-grouse— and, in so doing, enhance large swaths of sage brush habitat elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and a host of other wildlife species depend on. 

The sage-grouse itself is an original and essential part of America’s hunting tradition. But its population has dropped by as much as 80 percent, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the species “warranted” a listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a final determination to be made in 2015. The clock is ticking, but there is still time for other Western states to develop their own approaches to conserving sage-grouse that create win-win scenarios like Wyoming has.

Utilizing proactive strategies and stakeholder involvement throughout, Wyoming has managed to remain second only to Texas in energy production, while simultaneously reducing the amount of land leased for oil and gas drilling within core sage-grouse habitat.  This approach has had the added benefit of conserving big game habitat, which substantially overlap with core sage-grouse habitat. And hunting and fishing aren’t just a proud part of our heritage and recreation in the American West; in Wyoming it is big business, responsible for 50,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in spending annually.

Thanks to the innovative and collaborative approach former Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) spearheaded and Gov. Matt Mead (R) has carried on, Wyoming’s plan calls for protections in scientifically identified “core” habitat areas, providing flexibility for preexisting uses and certainty to the oil and gas industry about where development can take place. 

The Wyoming plan has been developed with input from industry, fish and game professionals, ranchers, sportsmen, and other key stakeholders, and was even praised by an energy industry official for setting “rules that are not constantly changing and allow us to plan,” saying that despite the wide-ranging representation around the planning table, the planning process has gone “smoothly.”

There is a wide variety of conservation and energy priorities across the Western states, and while we need to provide  certainty—for sage-grouse, as well as sportsmen, industry and others who use the land—it is also important that we account for local perspectives and concerns. Success will come when other states follow in Wyoming’s footsteps, and develop plans that involve diverse partners from the beginning, utilize the best available information to identify and conserve key habitat areas, and creating a body of diverse stakeholders that advises and keeps the states accountable. 

When we do that, each state will have a plan that fits its own needs, and the energy industry and other stakeholders will have the input and certainty they need to stabilize their business and avoid sacrificing energy production. That is the best thing for the bird and for our conservation heritage. 

Tawney is executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.