Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal on Wednesday issued a revised executive order on the state's sage grouse core population area strategy, which he said would protect the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) while still offering opportunities for resource development.

Executive Order 2010-4 includes revised maps with new boundaries of protected core area habitat where development is prohibited. The order replaces Executive Order 2008-2, which allowed for development in noncore areas, even where sage grouse were present.

Wyoming officials in late June had recommended protecting more land as core area habitat for sage grouse (see Daily GPI, July 1). The recommendations closely followed a lawsuit filed in June by the Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians concerning ESA protections for the sage grouse.

"We need to protect what truly needs protecting and provide flexibility and opportunity outside core areas," Freudenthal said. "Sage grouse management, as outlined in this executive order, is driven by the best data we have regarding sage grouse habitats, populations and impacts to the species. It is clear there will be specific cases where the application of habitat protections will require site-specific variation, and the process to determine that flexibility is clear and fair."

The new order was compiled using updated data developed by a study funded by the Wyoming Legislature. The listing of the greater sage grouse under the ESA "would have a significant, adverse effect on the economy of the state of Wyoming, including the ability to generate revenue from state lands," the executive order noted. The order suggests that the core population areas not be altered for at least five years, although Freudenthal indicated that he would be open to a more immediate review if new data becomes available.

"The State of Wyoming has emerged as the leader in the effort to conserve sage grouse in North America, and it is my intent that we will accomplish that goal, while at the same time maintaining a strong and vibrant economy in our state," Freudenthal said.

Among other things, the revised order reiterates that wind development would not be permitted in sage grouse core areas. On two separate occasions, noted the governor, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has stated that the best available science indicates that wind development is incompatible with core area protection.

"Research outside of sage grouse core areas is ongoing to evaluate sage grouse reaction to wind development to inform a more flexible approach in the future," said Ryan Lance, Freudenthal's deputy chief of staff. "The response was that it would call into question the sufficiency of the core area strategy, thereby leading to a possible listing of the sage grouse, so it's critical that we maintain the bird and its habitat, consistent with the best available science."

The executive order lists 17 provisions and addresses issues that were not fully developed in the 2008 order, mostly because of a lack of data and information, said the governor's office. The issues addressed include mapping, connectivity zones and development outside of core areas.

The remapping, noted officials, was a public process that consisted of the local groups making recommendations to the governor's Sage Grouse Implementation Team. The governor's team, composed of government, industry and environmental leaders, adopted most of the local groups' recommendations.

Also affected by the executive order are connectivity zones, which help to ensure genetic mixing of sage grouse population, considered a key issue in the decision by the FWS earlier this year that sage grouse warrant listing under the ESA (see Daily GPI, March 8).

"Stipulations inside the connectivity zones have been defined and the order makes clear the zones are not to be managed as core areas," said the governor's office. "Outside of core areas, the executive order clarifies that stipulations are to be relaxed, so that there are enhanced resource development opportunities."

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