- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Landowners, environmental groups, biologists and businesses all have weighed in with proposals as Wyoming officials consider the first boundary changes in five years to vast areas of the state that carry special rules to protect the habitat of the greater sage grouse.

Some of the proposals might make it to Gov. Matt Mead for final consideration. Many others will die before a process started last winter gets to that point within a couple more months.

“Is there a compelling reason to make a change? Absent that, we’re not going to make changes for change’s sake,” said Bob Budd, chairman of the state Sage Grouse Implementation Team in charge of Wyoming’s sage-grouse conservation strategy.

The issue of protecting sage grouse has become a major issue across the West because commercial operations, including mining companies and oil and gas producers, want to keep the bird off the federal threatened or endangered list because the classification would place new restrictions on their work. The chicken-sized bird once numbered in the millions, but current estimates put the population much lower. Experts blame loss of habitat.

A public meeting Thursday is the next step in evaluating the proposed changes. In Lander, a subcommittee of the team will consider proposals to make several changes to the sage grouse’s core habitat across central and south-central Wyoming. The ideas include:

- A proposal by the Ur-Energy company to exclude parts of the company’s Shirley Basin uranium mine site from the protected sage grouse habitat, which is 30 miles south of Casper.

- A proposal from Anadarko Petroleum to remove the protected sage grouse habitat north and south of Interstate 80 in the Creston Junction area. A protected habitat for the sage grouse could be added in an area nearby where Anadarko no longer plans coal-bed methane development, the company says.

- A proposal by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to link currently separate sage-grouse habitat areas about 30 miles north of Rawlins.

Under Wyoming’s sage-grouse conservation strategy, new development is restricted in designated regions that are considered core habitat for the birds. New routes for power lines - potential roosts for raptors that prey on sage grouse - wouldn’t be allowed through the habitat unless it could be shown they wouldn’t cause a decline in the number of sage grouse, for example.

The approach allows for the Sage Grouse Implementation Team - whose members include local, state and federal government officials, landowners and industry representatives - to occasionally amend the boundaries of designated habitat.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30 to decide whether the greater sage grouse needs protection as a threatened or endangered species. Though Congress voted late last year to withhold funding to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered, a decision to list could greatly complicate fossil fuel and renewable energy development in the Rocky Mountain region.

As long as Wyoming’s changes aren’t too dramatic and are supported by science, they shouldn’t raise concerns in the context of the listing decision, said Pat Deibert, national sage grouse conservation coordinator for Fish and Wildlife. “We are looking for minimally no less than what we have had previously,” Deibert said Tuesday.

Statewide, the Sage Grouse Implementation Team and others involved in the process have set out as a key goal not to lose the total amount of protected habitat, said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“At the end of the day, there should be no net loss. And it’s not looking like that’s going to be anywhere near the case. If a lot of these ideas go through, both in terms of trimming and adding, there would be a net gain in sage grouse,” Christiansen said.

Other goals include not “Swiss-cheesing” sage grouse core habitat. Existing habitat areas would not be split up or carved from significantly and any trimming only would occur around the edges.

Sage grouse live in 11 states from California to the Dakotas. Wyoming is home to as many as 500,000 greater sage grouse, more than any other state by far.

Thursday’s subcommittee meeting in Lander begins at 9 a.m. at the local Game and Fish Department office. The full Sage Grouse Implementation Team plans to convene at 8:30 a.m. April 15 at The Inn in Lander. Another subcommittee meeting to consider core area changes in the Bighorn Basin and northeast Wyoming is set for 9 a.m. April 28 at the fire hall in Buffalo.

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